Thursday, 13 September 2012

REVIEW: A Stranger of Mine (2005, released 2012)

A Stranger Of Mine is a 2005 comedy-drama directed by Kenji Uchida, which takes as its subject the remarkable interdependence between a number of people who are all largely unknown to each other. Over one evening, the lives of several people will intertwine in a variety of ways.

The film begins with Maki Kuwata (Reika Kirishima) locked out of her boyfriend’s apartment. Homeless, penniless and heartbroken, Maki finds herself in a restaurant when she is suddenly invited to dine with Yusuke Kanda (Sô Yamanaka), a private detective, and his friend, Takeshi Miyata (Yasuhi Nakamura), a hard working businessman.

Miyata is also heartbroken, having been cruelly dumped by the love of his life, Ayumi (Yuka Itaya), just six months before. When Kanda suddenly leaves, Miyata finds himself alone with Maki. Finding out that she has nowhere to go, Miyata asks her to spend the night in his empty apartment. This proves to be only the beginning of a night that seems like it will never end…

Though the description above does not sound like anything special, as indeed is the film’s first half hour, the film is soon jumping backwards and forwards in time, switching protagonists as well as styles and, even, genres. The film begins as a melodrama, focusing on Maki’s grief. Though offset somewhat with Godardian intertitles and visual and audio montage, the melodrama is primarily established by slow fades and whispering voiceovers about loneliness. It is not long before the film switches to rom-com, with a tendency towards serendipity, awkward first meetings and upbeat guitar twangs. Though not without its nicely judged moments and an evident directorial subtlety – shots are frequently held for a long time from a fixed position, allowing the actors to take precedence over the editing, as in the best moments of Ozu – the film can’t help but feel overly simplistic and conventionally twee.

However, the film soon shifts protagonist and genre once again, this time following Kanda, the private detective, throughout the same evening. To give away what genre follows, or to give away any more of the plot(s), would be to rob the viewer of the delights of A Stranger Of Mine. Suffice it to say that the film becomes more and more surprising, much funnier and a greater entertainment. The twisting narrative is presented with invention, wit and without the heavy-handedness of some of the work of Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film not only makes up for the beginning, but also makes you instantly want to watch it all over again.

Though the film is largely far from serious, it remains a fascinating study of our own limited perspectives. From one angle, a character may appear hectoring and condescending, but when the angle shifts and we get to meet that character, they becomes nervous and desperate. By deftly switching protagonists and genres, writer-director Kenji Uchida allows us to see the same scene from several different perspectives and worldviews. As a result, what was initially romantic may become tense, cynical or ridiculous. On the other hand, the film also details how small, seemingly insignificant actions might hugely affect the lives of other people. In fact, this film does in 97 minutes what took Lucas Belvaux three films and five and a half hours to do with his intriguing but long-winded One, Two, Three Trilogy. All that and a playful trick ending and a note-perfect resolution, one that makes you want to see the scene that immediately follows and, maybe, the scene after that.

Aside from the twisting narrative, which is ultimately the film’s main focus, A Stranger Of Mine also offers several funny moments as well as a riveting plot and some very clever genre deconstructions. Even when you know what genre Kenji Uchida has adopted, you are still never sure quite where the film is going. In fact, the sequences involving Kanda are good enough for a single, straightforward narrative feature on its own merits. Even the film’s score is funny, mocking the typical scores that come with each genre change. Hence, the action score is ridiculously overblown and the romantic score – so annoying initially – is soon revealed as knowingly sentimental.

Oddly enough, one of the film’s most pleasing features is its total lack of any violence, swearing or nudity. Though hardly a family film, it avoids the extremities of Tarantino and Iñárritu, delivering a film that is enjoyable without leaving a sickening taste in the mouth.

Though initially the film may be a little hard to take, it soon redeems itself with an almost infectious sense of playfulness and a genuinely entertaining storyline. The acting is generally very good and, despite the film’s themes, it is ultimately a fun movie, made with an emphasis on having a good time.

A Stranger Of Mine is showing as part of the Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Contemporary Japanese Auteurs festival from February 10 to March 28 at the ICA (London), the Showroom Workstation (Sheffield), the Filmhouse (Edinburgh), the Glasgow Film Theatre (Glasgow), the Queen’s Film Theatre (Belfast), the Watershed (Bristol) and the Broadway (Nottingham). It is well worth seeking out.

See also: Heart, Beating in the Dark (2005)

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