Is Happy Hour Japan’s epic answer to Sex and the City?

Don’t fear the run-time: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s giant saga is a movie for the binge-watching generation.

Words

Bella McNeill

Choosing films to see at a festival can be an overwhelming experience. With so many crammed into a limited number of days, it means you often have to be selective with how you spend your time. It can seem daunting, or even wasteful to invest your valuable hours in films with a massively extended runtime, when multiple films could be seen in the same duration. Sometimes, though, the investment can pay off.

Consider, for instance, Happy Hour, an ambitious Japanese saga directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi that boasts a running time of five hours and 17 minutes. The film’s premise reads like an episode of ‘Sex and the City’: together, four women navigate their thirties, and deal with the relationships and conflicts that come with it. There is little in the way of frivolity when it comes to the journeys these women take. There are no unnecessary detours for entertainment’s sake. Every moment organically develops out of individual motivation, and often to melancholic end. Yet despite its length, Happy Hour never tests patience. The leisurely pace is not a unnecessary overindulgence, but instead, a carefully constructed drama that recognises the value of time spent focusing on the everyday moments.

For its dialogue-heavy story, the film collected Best Screenplay at the 2015 Locarno Film Festival, along with the Best Female Actor prize, awarded collectively to the four leads (Tanaka Sachie, Kikuchi Hazuki, Mihara Maiko, Kawamura Rira). There is a depth to the world created by Hamaguchi and co-writer Tadashi Nohara – even minor characters are fully realised, and many events play out in what feels like real time. But with this density comes a subtlety that ensures it never becomes overwhelming or tedious. Instead, Happy Hour is a placid, serene experience, where audiences are placed into the position of an intrigued passer-by, privileged to personal moments that may at first appear mundane and ordinary. As seen from Hamaguchi’s perspective, they are emotionally rich.

The quartet at the heart of the film features Akari, a dedicated nurse with a blunt personality who is divorced from a cheating husband and confronted with a new loneliness; Fumi, the reserved manager of an arts space, whose outwardly perfect marriage is disintegrating due to a lack of any real communication with her husband; Sakurako, whose conservative relationship with her husband (he earns the money, she tends the home) leads her to dissatisfaction and anxiety; and Jun, the de facto group leader, and the plot instigator whose revelation that she is trying to divorce her cold and inattentive husband leads to the fracturing of multiple relationships.

Happy Hour plays like high-art television, embracing a new model of TV programming that encourages binge watching. Recently, there has been an desire to embrace small screen content at traditional film festivals. Austin’s SXSW has long welcomed it (episodes of Girls, UnReal and Mr Robot screened there in recent years), while last year, the Rotterdam Film Festival screened the entire second season of Amazon’s acclaimed Transparent.

What makes Happy Hour more akin to these modes of epic storytelling is its nuanced and detailed elaboration of character, and the slowly unfolding revelation of relationship dynamics. The film is defined by its effortless ability to fit into what could be an awkward space. While many moments read as a series of undirected improvisations, as a whole, the film is a carefully crafted, incident-defined journey marked by the highs and lows of four individual women. The film has a sensitivity, delicacy and eye for detail that reveals a nuanced understanding of personal dilemma, justifying every minute of its length, rather than building an unnecessary plot that is straining against the clock.

As audiences continue to cultivate a twenty-first-century relationship with content – be it cinema or television – the line that has long distinguished the two begins to blur. Happy Hour could have a home on the small screen, a precedent set by Bruno Dumot’s L’il Quinquin which premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as a feature, only to then be screened as an episode-based miniseries for French television. Breaking the film up into more digestible sections, however, may ruin what Hamaguchi so successfully achieves.

The medium is one thing, but a long film should never just be randomly sliced up for the sake of consumption. Yet, there is hope that Happy Hour will find a post-festival home on a streaming service. In today’s climate where content is produced for extended viewings, and audiences are accustomed to extended periods on the couch, Netflix, Amazon, or dedicated classic and art film services like the anticipated FilmStruck, offer Hamaguchi’s epic its most deserving chance at a widespread success.

Happy Hour screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Find out more at miff.com

Published 27 Jul 2016

Tags: Happy Hour Japanese cinema

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