Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)


A family portrait on the beach.

(2016) Drama (Film Movement) Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro, Taiga, Takahiro Miura. Directed by Kôji Fukada

Family dynamics are ever changing, evolving things. What appears to be on the outside may not necessarily be what circumstances are behind closed doors. The whole thing about happy families is that they are in reality a myth for the most part – they are even rarer than a unicorn.

On the surface, Toshio (Furutachi) has a good life. He and his family live quietly in apartments above the machine shop he runs and inherited from his father. If he seems a bit distracted at the breakfast table, he nonetheless provides for his family as best he can. His wife Akie (Tsutsui) is a good Christian woman and a doting mother on their daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa). She is sweet and high-spirited in the way of some children; she is also learning to play the harmonium with indifferent success.

Into the mix comes Yasaka (Asano), an old friend of Toshio. It is apparent he has just been released from prison and Toshio offers him a job and a place to live on the spot. This surprises Akie who knows that the business is struggling but being the polite Japanese wife that she is she says nothing. As the days go by she gets to know Yasaka a little better and her initial reservations seem to be abating and when he shares with her details of his crime she does not recoil. Rather, she is turned on or at least isn’t turned off by the idea of having an affair with him. When they do get physical it’s difficult to know who’s seducing who.

But a tragedy occurs that devastates the family and Yasaka disappears. Eight years later the family is still recovering, if you can call it that. Akie has lost much of her faith and Toshio has become fixated on finding Yasaka, the architect of his sorrow. A new worker joins the family – Takashi (Taiga) – who is eager to help the family heal, but when karma comes to roost it may completely destroy what little unity the family has left.

The movie is presented in two distinct sections; the first is dominated by Yasaka who is like a time bomb waiting to explode; the second is the aftermath eight years later in which the parents are trying to pick up the pieces and cope. It’s quite a bit harder to watch the second half as the emotions in it are so raw and almost overwhelming. What goes on in the first is more of a prelude, a dance around the underlying issues. The second is the after-effect, when the bomb has exploded on the dance floor.

The performances are very measured in the first part. Yasaka is stiff as a board and generally clad in white; Toshio always seems distracted and lost in his own world. Akie has the smile and the charm that she shows to the world but when she is at home she knows her marriage has crumbled into ashes and she tastes the bitterness of them in her mouth.

In the second half Akie and Toshio are still closed off to an extent but the pretenses are gone. Toshio smolders with a desire for vengeance; Akie is protective of what’s left of her family and feels her own share of guilt as to what happened. I won’t say the performances are night and day because they are not – what they are is what you’d expect how people would react to a life-changing tragedy eight years afterwards.

Fukada is one of Japan’s most promising directorial talents and this is the kind of film that shows why many think he may eventually revolutionize Japanese cinema. He has a reputation for being an outside-the-box kind of guy and while it might be difficult for those of us watching with Western eyes, he is truly turning Japanese culture inside out in this film. In its own way it is much like Luis Brunel slicing open an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou.

This is a  truly strong effort that is going to be riding the festival circuit for a short time until it gets a limited release in June (as of this writing). It would be worth seeking out at your local art house, film festival or eventually on whatever streaming service this winds up on. This is a look at changing family dynamics in Japan and what lies beneath the surface of even the happiest of families. It’s absolutely unforgettable and even if it is a little bit on the long side (particularly during the first portion of the film) you won’t be sorry you sought it out.

REASONS TO GO: There is an underlying tension that starts off quietly and slowly builds to a crescendo. The end mirrors the beginning in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Another movie that’s too long for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sensuality as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the Jury Prize winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guest
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Are We Not Cats?

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Labor Day


Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

(2014) Romance (Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Matthew Rauch, Doug Trapp, Dylan Minnette, Ed Moran, Dakota Shepard, Elena Kampouris, Kate Geller. Directed by Jason Reitman

Loneliness does things to the human soul. It saps our self-confidence, flogs our self-worth and turns us into desperate, quivering hopeless creatures who might well reach out for any life preserver available – even if it comes in the form of a convicted murderer.

The sleepy town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire is in those last days of the summer of 1987. the kind where the air hangs heavy and hot over town and school beckons just past the holiday weekend. Henry (Griffith) needs school supplies and his mom takes him shopping as the weekend commences. This is no easy feat for her; she is recently divorced and is suffering from a bout of pronounced depression that is manifesting as acute agoraphobia. Her hands tremble uncontrollably, especially when she is beyond the safety of the four walls of her slowly decaying home which, lacking a man to take care of such things, is slowly falling into ruin.

Henry is accosted by a stranger named Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding and limping after a fall from a second story window. He asks for a ride which Henry’s mom Adele (Winslet) is loathe to give him but subtle threats lead her to comply. She soon discovers that Frank has escaped from prison where he is serving after being convicted of the murder of his wife nearly 20 years earlier.

Frank looks threatening and hard enough but it isn’t long before he reveals a gentle side. He is almost apologetic as he ties up Adele, essentially so that if the police ask she can claim truthfully that she was bound. He does some repair projects around the home, cooks and cleans and teaches them how to bake a proper peach pie after a neighbor (Simmons) brings by some nearly overripe peaches.

Adele quickly falls for this handsome man and quite frankly who wouldn’t? Soon she and Frank are hatching a plan to make a run for the Canadian border, while Henry’s misgivings are fueled by the manipulative Chicago transplant Eleanor (Fleming) and by his dad (Gregg) who has remarried and has a new family that seems to give him what he craves. However with the law searching high and low for Frank and Adele’s issues with leaving the house, is this plan doomed before it starts?

This is based on a Joyce Maynard novel and seems to be geared at a certain audience of women who might well be classified as those who have flocked to the bookshelves to read 50 Shades of Grey. It very much plays into the female fantasy of the bad boy with a heart of gold, a man who has a dangerous element to him but is deep down utterly devoted, handy around the house and in the kitchen and in the bedroom is loving and gentle and amazingly attentive.

Adele is right in Winslet’s wheelhouse; few actresses can portray the kind of trembling arousal that she can. There is a deer in the headlights element to Adele that is attractive but there are times when she looks to be breathing so heavily you have a real concern that she’s going to pop a button on her blouse. Still, she captures Adele’s completely broken down personality and her dependence on her 13 year old son. It isn’t hard to believe that a woman like her would fall so quickly and completely for a stranger with a prison record.

Brolin is looking more and more like his father which isn’t a bad thing if you like handsome men. However as good an actor as his dad was, his son looks to exceed his talents with each passing film. While the character of Frank is really too good to be true, Brolin at least makes him memorable and you do end up rooting for Frank and Adele to make it.

Reitman is an impressive director who often adds a dose of humor to his films which has earned him a lot of critical accolades. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s up and coming prodigies in the director’s chair; films like Juno and Thank You for Smoking underscore that. This is much less cutting edge than his previous films and correspondingly comes off a bit bland. I’m not saying that Reitman is incapable of doing a romantic film – he plainly can and has – but when you set the bar on your career to a certain level, you can end up creating disappointment in your core fan base, sort of like when M. Night Shyamalan stopped doing twist endings (or more accurately, when he stopped doing good movies). It is fair to say that some critics may be coming down on him harder because he set the bar so high with his previous movies.

And therein lies the rub. This is actually a pretty solid and sweet film that accomplishes exactly what i is supposed to. It is a change of pace for Reitman and takes him straight out of the ghetto of black comedies which he has been essentially stuck in. While one can debate the subtext of a strong, magnetic man tying up the object of his desires to tame her before winning her with the aspects that appeal to essentially any woman, I think that this is a movie geared towards women who have more to them than just hitting the clubs and gossiping with their friends. This is a movie for single moms, working moms, divorced women and single women who have had their hearts broken one too many times. These ladies deserve their fantasies too.

REASONS TO GO: Laid-back pacing and strong performances from Winslet and Brolin.

REASONS TO STAY: A few lapses in logic and character.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are fairly mature. There’s also some brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially Reitman wanted this to be his follow-up to Up in the Air but due to Winslet’s unavailability he decided to film Young Adult first.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That’s What I Am

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pulp Fiction