It may look like just another saccharine love-triangle romance, but 'Hana and Alice' is actually a deceptively tender and subtle paean to how gorgeous and sweet friendship can be. Although initially we have two high-school girls, Anne Suzuki and Aoi Yuu, squabble over a hapless senior, the film isn't really about teen crushes and jealousy. Instead, as layers of each girl's background and character are peeled away, we discover a surprising amount of depth and resonance to Hana and Alice's friendship. The ballet scene is much talked about and fawned over, but the real highlight for me was where we find out that Hana was in fact a near-autistic child, shunning the outer world from her flower house, until Alice came along and enticed her out into the world. This scene increases the emotional strength of both the film and the girls' relationship exponentially, and turns the movie from merely entertaining into truly touching.
Director Shunji Iwai once again establishes a particularly delectable mood - as only he can - and has the guts to carry it all the way. Although most of the press and public attention in the Far East focused on the freshness of Aoi Yuu, it is the former child actor Suzuki Anne who gives a performance of veritable subtlety, so nuanced and superbly mannered that you almost don't notice it until you give it a thought. She has the less flashy and more mundane role of the two, yet there isn't one moment where she's caught acting, something that sadly can't be said for Yuu. To think that Suzuki has just turned 18 - what a career she has in store for us.
Although somewhat long and dragging in places (you can only enjoy so many shots of young girls in tights dancing - no, hang on...) 'Hana and Alice' is a rare instance where one is allowed a flight of fancy without the attendant guilt, and in which friendship is explored with affection not angst. Don't let the fluffy romance tag fool you: this is a film which makes you nostalgic for those dreary days back in youth when you had your best friend walk alongside you on the way to school and didn't realize how special or fleeting it was.
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