Japan Cuts 2016: Bitter Honey and Lowlife Love Reviews

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2016 started on July 14th and is running through July 24th. My thoughts on last year’s festival can be read starting here.

My first viewings this year were the two films shown on Friday July 15th.

Bitter Honey

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So here we have a love story of sorts featuring an aging writer, a goldfish come to life as a young woman, and a ghost. Yet the superb acting and careful mix of comedy and drama make the absurd premise work and present an engaging narrative to follow along with.

Fumi Nikaido’s Akako pops right off the screen with an energy that’s contagious. Her playfulness gives the movie its heart and gratefully lightens its heavy themes. The movie’s wardrobe and background visuals enhance the focus on her, with her vibrant red dresses standing out as much as her infectious personality against the more subdued world around her. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, capturing the emotion behind the depicted events and conveying even the most ridiculous elements with total commitment and conviction.

I’m not sure everything came together quite perfectly, as certain aspects could have been better addressed/explained and I’m positive I didn’t catch nearly all of the symbolism and significance of some scenes (mostly those involving the mysterious upper floor of the author’s home). The author is intentionally unlikable in numerous ways, which could have been softened a little to better effect. I understand his characterization was an important part of the movie, but a couple of things could have been scaled back without losing that element and at the same time adding some extra empathy to the events that unfold. That said there’s just enough about him to sympathize with to keep the audience engaged.

As a side note, I also feel the often quoted movie summary (which was also paraphrased for us during the screening’s introduction) explaining that the ghost of the writer’s former lover “helps Akako realize her own desires, activating her agency and frustrating the one-sided male fantasy the writer is so keen to continue” over simplifies things a bit too much and somewhat shortchanges the ghost’s (played by Yoko Maki) nuanced role and intentions as well as the way the themes arise in the movie.  I won’t go into detail to avoid major spoilers, but while the statement isn’t wrong per se the movie I saw didn’t quite feel fairly described by it.

Bitter Honey is an extremely odd movie where a strong center and phenomenal acting beneath the surreal elements and absurd premise make it all work splendidly. Despite a few imperfections I really enjoyed this and it leaves the viewer with a lot of interesting things to think about. And even with a great supporting cast and a strong narrative as draws, I have to agree with other reviewers that Fumi Nikaido’s performance alone was easily worth the price of admission.

Lowlife Love

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On the opposite end of the spectrum from the playfulness of Bitter Honey is an extremely dark tale about a bunch of lowlifes who dream of success in the film industry. This is the story of horrible people trying to survive in/break into a horrible industry, yet is played for comedy about half the time.

Lowlife Love is definitely not a bad movie. Far from it. It’s extremely well shot and acted, to the point where it’s very easy to get caught up in everything at an emotional level. This makes certain scenes incredibly powerful, to the point where I felt like I had been gut punched a few times and was extremely angry at what was happening during others. Any film that can evoke those kind of reactions is impressive. But there was nothing to counter it. The audience is deprived even the slightest glimmers of hope. This was brutally hard to watch in parts and the valve was never released, as the attempted humor was as relentlessly bleak as everything else and felt out of place and uncomfortable rather than lightening the mood to any lasting effect.

The film has a misogynist edge to its female characters, and I was pleased when the moderator asked the director/writer about the portrayal of women during the Q&A. He explained it not as a conscious choice that he was going to approach the female characters that way, but that he was illustrating the harsh realities of the film industry in Japan. I understand this to an extent, but if this was meant to be an expose of sorts then certain tonal aspects and plot points are quite incongruous to that. Also the explanation rings a little hollow considering one female character exists in the film simply to repeatedly remind us how much of an ass the main character is, and another solely for sex related jokes who is later revealed to be underage.

I understand that these are not supposed to be good people and we are supposed to cheer for their success despite that, and the film does manage to infuse that feeling overall. But there are things that undermine that aspect too, and the single character that remains likable and uncorrupted is given practically no spotlight or story throughout the film.

Again Lowlife Love is well done on a technical level and there are stories worth telling and things worth thinking about here, but they fall short of their potential in the execution and the movie is just so depressing I can’t possibly recommend it. It deserved to be screened, but I can’t say I liked it.

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Q&A with producer Adam Torel, director Eiji Uchida, and actor Denden after the screening

 

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Will be back with more reviews as Japan Cuts continues. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Japan Cuts 2016: Bitter Honey and Lowlife Love Reviews

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