16 March 2013 | CountZero313
powerful performances in hit-and-miss narrative
When her affair with a married man unravels, an unhinged Kiwako kidnaps her ex-lover's newborn daughter, Erina, and raises her as her own.
The storyline begins in the courtroom four years later with an unapologetic Kiwako, and a bitter and vengeful mother of the child. At this point, with only the barest information available, as often happens in our tabloid-saturated societies, our sympathies are firmly with the mother. The film then juxtaposes the life of Kiwako on the run, with the present-day Erina, and the immediate aftermath of the return of the child to her birth mother.
This structure succeeds in making us question our initial responses to the main players. This is most effectively achieved by the performances of Hiromi Nagasaku and Mao Inoue. Nagasaku as the needy, bereft, jilted lover and kidnapper superbly humanises the 'monster' of tabloid headlines. Her tenderness with the child and devotion to her motherly role are so engrossing that one is shocked when a cut juxtaposes the callous act that brought these events about. Inoue is rootless and disconnected, emphasised by the fact that her own perfunctory romance is with a married man. When Chigusa shows up and forces her to re-visit her past and re-evaluate her present, Inoue's portrayal of the emotional journey is pleasingly subtle and raw. So perfectly under-stated is her acting here that it is hard to believe that she is the same actress who mugged her way through My Darling is a Foreigner.
Eiko Koike's casting as the emotionally crippled Chigusa is a gamble, but it pays off with a memorable shift. Less acceptable is Gekidan Hitori's wooden stint as the boyfriend. He's clearly out of his depth.
As with the casting, plot-wise some elements work better than others. The film is strongest when it stays resolutely with Kiwako and Erina trying to make sense of their actions. A journey to Okayama becomes heavy-handed product placement for the prefecture's tourism sector, with a twee rendering of life on Inland Sea islands, a region facing severe demographic problems in real life. The clunkiest moment however is a sequence when Kiwako takes refuge with a religious cult, whose manga-esque guru is comically overblown.
The couple who lose their child are also misrepresented. The mother's histrionics become insufferable. The father is reduced to a bit player, a bizarre decision given his catalytic role in events. His emotional turmoil, no doubt momentous, is regrettably left unexplored. A swelling, manipulative soundtrack tries too hard for sentimentality.
At over two hours the film takes too long to get to its destination. You could actually watch large chunks on fast-forward and not really miss anything, the pace is that slow. However, the ending packs a punch, especially Kiwako's realisation that she has to let go. Great to see two female leads displaying outstanding skills in a Japanese film.