The Tokyo International Film Festival has more in common with its mega-corporate Coca-Cola sponsor than it might like to think, as both are in the business of churning out factory-line products. The festival’s hyped-up opening and closing films, Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk and Tetsuo Shinohara’s Terminal, are both as equally cloying as a can of soda pop. Apparently this comes as no surprise to those familiar to the business sensibilities of the festival, but for cinephiles, the films produce the miasmic feeling that they were conceived by some number-crunching algorithm.
At least Terminal’s mawkishness is alleviated by piercing performances from Shigeru Izumiya and Machiko Ono. Tatsuzo (Izumiya) is an accomplished lawyer who, following the tragic suicide of his mistress, retreats to the sleepy Japanese beach town of Kushiro in self-imposed exile. Flash-forward several decades and he remains emotionally arrested, guilt-ridden, and estranged from his now grown-up son. The gnawing tedium of everyday life has long set in, only to be disrupted by a knock on his door from an old client, Saeko (Ono). This cutely eccentric woman and ex-drug addict now seeks Tatsuzo’s help in finding a friend, and together they become unlikely bedfellows, embarking on a journey of self-discovery that has Tatsuzo grappling with Saeko’s resemblance to his long-dead mistress.
The moments of emotional lucidity shine through the grayness of the ephemeral drama. The out-of-nowhere suicide of Tatsuzo’s mistress and the subsequent torture he imposes on himself feel like ploys. Even if one suspends disbelief and is able to forgive the transparency of the film’s plotting, the extremity of the guilt Tatsuzo remains curiously uninterrogated. One has to take a lot for granted for the film to live up to its seriousness.
For this reason, the silences in the film tend to overestimate their expression of profoundly deep torture, not at all aided by the theme song that crops up almost a half a dozen times throughout, becoming a distracting Pavlovian bell meant to signal Tatsuzo’s general sadness. Worse yet, a side plot involving a thug’s attempt to enlist the main character’s services stalls the narrative by virtue of feeling so nonsensically crammed in, seeming to exist for no reason than to give a notable role to Japanese heartthrob Shido Nakamura.
Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Three Loves Stories attempts to give the hyperlink film a much-needed shot in the arm. The story seamlessly cuts back and forth between three characters living in the same town: a man whose wife was killed in a random act of violence; an increasingly antipathetic gay lawyer; and a housewife trapped in an emotionally stilted marriage.
Subverting the typical expectations of such films, Hashiguchi opts for his characters to only gently brush up against one another: A take-out lunchbox the lawyer eats is packed by the housewife, and the lawyer and widow share a brief moment of misunderstanding. The film’s dramatic tension, then, doesn’t arise from the inevitability of these characters’ lives forcibly colliding. Rather, Hashiguchi crafts a thrilling plot by focusing on multidimensional characters all united under the thematic banner of unrequited love.
Hashiguchi is devoted to fleshing out his characters’ inner lives through canny visual touches that work to unveil their emotional states and unconscious desires. The widower is only able to communicate with another person if there’s a physical barrier between them, such as a door or stone wall; and the gay lawyer can’t break through to admit his love for his best friend, which manifests itself in the transference of a libidinal charge into everyday relations with the friend’s son (ravishingly expressed through an extreme close-up of the child’s ear being touched). The film’s visual language immerses us in the increasingly fragmented psyches of these characters, and as the story moves toward a cathartic display of self-understanding, the audience never feels manipulated by the often tenuous connections films of this ilk, such and Crash and 21 Grams, almost absurdly rely upon.
The Tokyo International Film Festival runs from October 22—31.