In recent years, Japanese director Shunji Iwai has become the dark poet of adolescence, exhibiting a profound insight into how teenagers think and act, capturing the rhythms of their speech and depicting their not always smooth transitions from being a child to becoming an adult. Iwai's bleak 2001 film All About Lily Chou Chou dramatized the isolation and emotional torment that accompanies teenage bullying and the failure of modern technology to provide an outlet for loneliness. The polar opposite is Hana and Alice, his 2004 film just released on DVD, which shows the sweet, perhaps too innocent side of Japanese high school life without any hint of the turbulence displayed in Lily.
Written and directed by Iwai who also composed the musical score, Hana and Alice is a charming comedy/drama of friendship and conflict between two junior high school girls who fall for the same boy, depicting their gradually developing ability to handle complex emotional situations without the typical coming-of-age clichés. Originally filmed as three shorts for a candy commercial, Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) are fifteen year old high school students and best friends. Alice is the more free-spirited and creative of the two, while Hana is more reserved but still quite playful. The two go to school each morning on the train, attend the same ballet classes, and are virtually inseparable.
On the train, they both notice a handsome student, Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), traveling with a tall American-looking boy who they guess is his older brother. Hana, pursuing her new interest, joins the school drama club where Miyamoto just happens to be a member. Following him home after school, Hana watches in horror as Miyamoto, his head buried deep in a book and seemingly oblivious to the world around him, walks headfirst into a garage door and is knocked unconscious. Seizing the opportunity after coming to his aid, she tells him that his accident has caused him to forget that she is his girlfriend. She solicits Alice's help in pretending to be his ex-girl friend but the more convoluted the lies become, the more strain is put on the girls' relationship, especially when Alice develops strong romantic feelings for Miyamoto.
Hana and Alice is a beautifully filmed and often very funny film that features gorgeous cinematography by the late Noburu Shinoda, magnificent music and ballet sequences, and brilliant performances by Aoi, Suzuki, and Kaku. The film has many memorable moments including an enchanting five-minute ballet sequence, a tearful confession by Hana minutes before she is to go on stage to perform, a glowing photo shoot of the ballet class outside at night, a fight on the beach between the two girls, and Alice's loving visit with her estranged father. While the story is thin and feels stretched over 135 minutes, Iwai's subtle delineation of character and insight into adolescent life makes Hana and Alice a film to cherish.
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