Sunday, June 22, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Sad Vacation

Writer-director Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation (2007), one of nine New York Asian Film Festival entries originating from upstart Japanese production-distribution outfit Stylejam, completes a loose trilogy that also includes the filmmaker's 1996 Helpless and his 2000 Eureka, which for many cinephiles, this writer included, continues to rank as the finest Japanese film of the current decade. On the basis of the latter achievement alone - the only of Aoyama's films I've had the privilege to see - Sad Vacation easily ranks as one of the most hotly anticipated of this year's NYAFF selections, at least for those spectators who incline more towards the art house than the grindhouse.

Sad Vacation early on seems to meet precisely these very high expectations. Following an opening pre-credit passage that re-introduces Helpless's protagonist, Tadanobu Asano's Kenji, into Aoyama's narrative universe, we see Asano/Kenji floating down a lazy river like Michel Simon in Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) - or better yet André Bazin's description of Simon floating in the Marne, "yellow" and "glaucous" with its "tepid" August warmth. Aoyama has resurrected this image in the precise colors that the film theorist once used. Hence, Aoyama has shown himself to be an attentive student of his former University of Tokyo professor Shigehiko Hasumi; the spectacle of the everyday comes vividly into focus in this early passage, as does the director's unmistakable sensitivity for texture.

The film's essential looseness continues throughout much of the film's first two-thirds, in spite of the dramatic pyrotechnics that mark Aoyama's equally conspicuous melodrama. These two tendencies combine in the picture's Kyūshū garage, into which Kenji moves after spotting its proprietress, his long-lost - absentee - mother (Eri Ishida). Kenji, still with an enormous amount of animus toward his mother and perhaps intent on exacting some measure of revenge for her past neglect, brings with him Yuri (another Helpless holdover) and the Chinese boy Achun whom he had saved in the picture's opening sequence - in other words, he brings his surrogate family to the second collection of drifters who have congregated at the Mamiya's place (among these is Eureka's young heroine Kozue, Aoi Miyazaki), themselves forming such a grouping. In this way, Sad Vacation reapplies one of the key thematic constructs of the director's 2000 masterpiece: the reconstituted familial unit.

Moreover, since many are also heroes of the earlier two works, they also live with the same traumas they did in the earlier pictures. Indeed, this reusing of prior characters marks the film's most formally compelling feature. (The flash-forwards that pepper the narrative - the other most noteworthy device in Sad Vacation, which the NYAFF's program notes compare to The Limey - though distinct, do not appear to possess a similarly organic narrative function.) Specifically, Aoyama's narrative strategy constructs a diegetic world that emerges as far more than the sum of the film's plot elements. Like the spiritual undercurrent, a key subtext of Eureka similarly, which is expressed in a sign that we return to on multiple occasions - "We are not alone" - the film's story world extends far beyond the visible. As with The Darjeeling Limited, this is a film with a clearly articulated author (perhaps the explanation for the flash-forwards?) and with many narratives threads that might have been pursued alternatively.

But it is that favorite contemporary Japanese theme of the dysfunctional family (spanning back to at least Yoshimitsu Morita's fine 1983 The Family Game) that Aoyama pursues. While Aoyama's vision remains lucid throughout the picture's final third, with both his explicit condemnation of Japanese mothers and fathers and his humanistic affirmation that we must concern ourselves with the living - though Kenji's mother's heartless statement of this view is less credible - the film's plot becomes ever more labyrinthine in Aoyama's attempts to weave in its rhyming antecedents. Consequently, it becomes increasingly evident that Sad Vacation fails to stand on its own as a feature, requiring an awareness instead of not only Eureka but also Helpless - less to understand the film's transparent point-of-view than to juggle its ever-multiplying character count. What had been a languid float through the water and then a digressive congregation of the damned finally becomes a test of character recongition that detracts from Sad Vacation's greatest strengths.

And then there is the Sad Vacation itself, narratively repeating the theme of the eponymous Johnny Thunders song that scores the opening credits. With said "vacation" we have one last melodramatic turn, which collectively constitute a piling on that cancels Sad Vacation's earlier promise.

Sad Vacation screens at the Japan Society in Midtown Manhattan, Sunday, July 6 at 1:15 PM.

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