There’s something bracing about a Romanian film whose subject matter isn’t the brutal lingering effects of communism on the country’s people, or isn’t filmed in the oppressively dour manner that’s become synonymous with the purveyors of the Romanian New Wave. The usual long takes and wide landscape shots that have been a hallmark of many recent and acclaimed films from the country may be visible throughout The Japanese Dog, but with its open-air settings, simple story, and plainspoken manner, Tudor Cristian Jurgiu’s debut feature feels quaint compared to the gritty, horrific, or blackly comic works of Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, and Corneliu Porumboiu. Jurgiu’s film, by contrast, may be described as a Yasujiro Ozu drama done in the Romanian style. If only there was more to distinguish it beyond such extra-textual concerns.
The film is essentially a family drama, with a contemplative tenor that suits its main character, Costache (Victor Rebengiuc), an elderly man recently widowed after his wife perished in a flood. Much of the story’s first half functions as a low-key character study, with Costache’s resentful attitude toward charity a recurring motif. At one point, he brusquely resists the advances of a panhandler until he begrudgingly breaks down; the next moment, though, he rebuffs a neighbor’s offer for milk, but again he eventually accepts with a sarcastic “thanks.” In those ways, he’s a typical stoic macho type, ambivalent about coming off as too needy lest that reveal signs of weakness.
It takes a visit from his estranged son, Ticu (Serban Pavlu), to push Costache to incrementally break out of his shell. The younger man shows up midway through the film with his Japanese wife (Kana Hashimoto) and son (Constantin Draganescu), the latter of whom carries the toy dog to which the film’s title refers. Costache’s interactions with these characters reveal the warmer side of his personality, and gradually he begins to open up about his inner loneliness and regrets. By the end, his newfound openness to life and the people around him leads him to quietly make a progressive life-changing decision, one whose implications are, theoretically at least, made more profound for being presented so matter-of-factly on screen.
Jurgiu chronicles all of this with patience and a welcome attention to details of behavior and environment. But as the film proceeds, what first seems refreshingly relaxed and subtle begins to feel coy. At least Ozu, even at his most austere, allowed tensions to fester underneath his deceptively serene surfaces; Jurgiu, conversely, seems perpetually afraid of leaving even the slightest hints of conflict between his characters unresolved, to the point that even the tensions in a tangential scene between Ticu and an ex-girlfriend in town are ultimately and too-briskly shoved under the rug. Perhaps Jurgiu is consciously positioning The Japanese Dog as an antithesis to the kinds of films audiences are used to seeing from Romania, many of which seem to take place in dark and forbidding environments in which the people inhabiting it have been made indifferent to human life by the country’s communist legacy. But this pleasantly well-meaning film is too shallow, pat, and frustratingly opaque to make for an especially resonant alternative.