Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 30, 2018 12:07 pm 
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Dream deferred, love affirmed

Kiiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his superb modern horror films, especially his 1997 Cure and 2000 Pulse. Reviewing the good but not quite so good one made in between, the ironically titled Bright Future , I wrote "Kurosawa like no other living director creates his own haunting and disturbing moods." He took a successful turn toward a more conventional family drama about a man ashamed of being out of work with his 2008 Tokyo Sonata. But in 2012 he came home in a new format, with a drawn-out but absorbing horror miniseries, "Penance", about murder and schoolgirls; its five episodes were shown in theaters and on Japanese TV; you can watch it online. Things have been uneven since then, as can happen with the prolific. Two overlong movies, Journey to the Shore and Daguerreotype (with Tahar Rahim, Olivier Gourmet, Mathieu Amalric, and Malik Zidi, all wsted, which I coudln't finish), came out in 2015 and 2016. But in between was the successful and more typical Creepy.

Well, this new one, based on a play (by Tomohiro Maekawa), is in between the two. It meanders too much, and doesn't seem to know how to grab us and hold us and move toward a climax. It's overlong too. But it's fun to watch, even amid cheesy special effects, Kurosawa's mastery of odd atmosphere, his way with young characters. One settles in comfortably for the work of a real pro, and winds up with a mystical and meditative work that plays with Eighties sci-fi.

What happens is a very low keyed alien invasion but it begins, as if influenced by American blockbusters' penchant for high-octane openings, with the violent, bloody murder of a family, and then Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), the teenage daughter, appears walking down the street splattered with gore. But there are several other stories. There is the journalist, Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), who, though he insists his interest is more important things, is sent in to follow up on the killings, and then he is approached by a loose-limbed, kind of crazy young man called Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) who offers to be Sakurai's "guide." (Takasugi does some falls and slides that are very graceful; and he's not the only one.)

An illustrator who works at home, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) finds out her estranged husband, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), has come back from a walk helpless, with loss of memory and incomprehension of basic tasks and ideas. This delights Narumi, who had grown to hate Shinji. Now that he's robed of most of his personality, though his helplessness can be a bit annoying, he becomes like a cuddly doll for her, or a playful reminder of all she loved about him originally.

The restored affection of Narumi and Shinji turns out to be the real unifying thread of a movie that instead of being primarily about alien invasion or apocalypse ends with a focus on the redeeming power of love. What helps this, perhaps the subtlest note, is that for a while we may imagine that maybe Shinji only thinks he's been invaded by an alien. He has, but this invasion turns out to be benign; the aliens are moved by what they find and change their minds. This is a hint of something dealt with in more detail in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth: the fact that life on earth can change a guy. Roeg's film meanders too, but it treats some of these themes more richly and, of course, has David Bowie. To do him justice, though, Ryuhei Matsuda looks rather like an alien too, at least from certain angles: perfect, but just a skosh off.

Sometimes Sinji's questions sound like mockery of human politics and philosophy. He also starts insisting he is an alien, come as part of a takeover. He must absorb - like Invasion of the Body Snatchers , certain human concepts. He's not the only one to do this, and they do it by asking a few questions to get the person focused on an idea, and then touch their forehead, whereupon they generally collapse from the loss, which may be debilitating - or freeing. When Narumi's boss at work has his concept of work taken over, he and his colleagues merrily go about destroying the office.

There isn't very much violence, or rather it simply isn't effective as, say, in Cure, where each successive death is at once a shock and a confirmation; actually Akira goes on being very violent, killing people who annoy her wholesale with whatever weapons come to hand. They emit flashes and look suspiciously like Fifties sci-fi movie ray-guns at times: but Kurosawa clearly intends this playful allusion to more naive and simpler cinematic future-worlds.

Before We Vanish doesn't always know what it wants to be (Cure and Pulse, for that matter Tokyo Sonata, never deviate). Kurosawa may have chosen the play because it seemed germane to former interests. When the people invaded by aliens touch a forehead and the person drops to the ground, it echoes earlier, more powerful and haunting Kurosawa films. But the trouble is he has apparently expanded the play, when he ought to have made it leaner and more powerful. There are many amusing or enjoyable or even thought-provoking moments here, but the action is meandering, rather than suspenseful, and the result isn't the audience-pleaser that the director's best work has been.

Before We Vanish/散歩する侵略者 (Sanpo suru shinryakusha), 129 mins., debuted at Cannes in May 2017; it was included in at least 14 other international festivals, including the New York Film Festival (30 Sept. 2017). Its US theatrical debut, from Super LTD, begins 2 Feb. 2018. It will show in New York atLincoln Center and IFC Center, and also in Los Angeles.





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