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Friday, May 23, 2008
Searching for truth behind the mask
In 2005, Kenji Uchida, then an unknown young director, won four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival for his second feature, "Unmei Ja Nai Hito (A Stranger of Mine)."
His film, about an ordinary guy and gal who have been dumped by their respective lovers and end up together through an extraordinary chain of events, was entertainment, not art, which made it an unlikely selection for the prestigious Cannes Critics' Week section, let alone award winner.
The Japanese media, which had been focusing on Uchida's better-known colleagues at the fest, was caught off guard by his success.
But Uchida's puzzle-plot script was ingeniously constructed and the various two-faced characters his two principals encounter were brilliant comic creations. He was a talent to watch, even though he didn't fit the Cannes auteur mold.
Now, after three long, agonizing years, he has released his followup, "After School," which is similar to "Unmei Ja Nai Hito" in its twisty story line. I say "long" and "agonizing" because Uchida, who writes his own films from scratch, spent two years dreaming up and discarding plot ideas before finishing the script. He was also reportedly a perfectionist on the set, working hard with his cast to get the sort of double-jointed performances he wanted.
This effort has not been for naught — the film's plot, with its second act revelation undermining all you thought you knew about certain characters and situations, is a mind-bender. It also shows up the banality and obviousness of most mystery scripts.
But as M. Night Shyamalan discovered after his triumph with "The Sixth Sense," it's not easy to astonish viewers twice with the same sort of pull-back-the- curtain story line. None of his films since have earned the rapturous reviews and splendiferous box office returns of that one, despite his strenuous efforts to top himself.
So it may be with Uchida and "After School," whose characters are more like directorial sock puppets than living, breathing individuals, and whose plot devices, ingenious as they are, strain credulity. Also, compared with "Unmei Ja Nai Hito," with its undercurrent of light, sophisticated comedy that Uchida admitted was inspired by director Billy Wilder, the new film takes itself more seriously as a mystery — and has less laughter and charm. Still, its puzzle is intriguing, as well as revealing about human duplicity.
Uchida's hero is Jinno (Yo Oizumi), a curly-haired junior-high-school teacher who works at his old alma mater. One fine summer day he is approached by Shimazaki (Kuranosuke Sasaki), a seedy-looking private detective who claims to be his long-lost classmate. He says he is looking for Kimura (Masato Sakai), Jinno's close friend since junior high, who is now an elite salaryman.
Kimura, we are told, went missing the day his wife (Takako Tokiwa) gave birth to their first child, after telling her the night before that he couldn't return home because of work. With Kimura nowhere in sight, Jinno had to help the missus make the mad dash to the hospital.
Now Shimazaki shows Jinno a photo, snapped that fateful day with a cell-phone camera, of Kimura in the company of a pretty club hostess (Tomoko Tabata). A mere chance meeting — or something more? Shimazaki enlists a reluctant Jinno in the search for the answer.
Among those who seem to know more than they are telling are the nervous president (Toshiyuki Kitami) of Kimura's trading company and the saturnine boss (Masato Ibu) of a yakuza gang that runs the club where the hostess worked — and the prexy and Kimura were customers. Jinno protests against Shimazaki's insinuations that Kimura was not the nice, upright guy he pretended to be; that he got caught dallying with the hostess — the gang boss's girlfriend — and ran away with her to escape the consequences. "He's never changed since junior high," Jinno says. "How do you know that?" Shimazaki replies.
That is the central question of the film: If what we know of anyone's character, acts and words is limited and partial, how can we really know the truth about them? Uchida's answers are driven by, not so much Wilderian cynicism, as narrative necessities. His people may not be cliches — Yo Oizumi's Jinno is a cooler, smarter character than the Peter-Pan-ish dweeb I was expecting, but they are mostly centerless, wearing masks that they put on or remove according to the turns of the plot.
"After School" may be Uchida's over-strained attempt to go his big breakthrough film one better. But he's also onto something about the scary shape-shifting nature of reality. Maybe the next time around he should drop Wilder — and cozy up to Kafka.