This poignant treatise on love at first sight is one of the best films in the 2018 Cannes competition line-up.
Kyoto, Japan. A girl spots a guy in an art gallery. She is bored by the exhibits on the wall, and so decides to admire this sculpted indie boy by following him out of the building. He doesn’t notice her, but a moment of poetic happenstance causes the couple to turn their heads at the same moment. They tentatively creep towards one another in a state of pre-romantic possession. They tell one another their names and then, cutting to the chase, he snatches a kiss. Is it possible to fall in love with a person you know nothing about? Where all you have is the image you’ve hastily projected onto a face and body?
The potency of that split second impulse is tested in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s intoxicating drama, Asako I & II, which is the director’s follow-up to his sprawling, 5 hour masterpiece from 2015, Happy Hour. In that film, we saw four women negotiating the emotional logistics of a break-up, where in this new one, it’s all about the rebound, what happens next and the legacy left by those who have departed. For Asako (Erika Karata), her love burns bright and fast as nervy, foppish beau, Baku (Masahiro Higashide), after tender assurances of their lifelong connection, decides one day to randomly up sticks and disappear.
Two-and-a-bit years later, and still scarred by the fact that her life could be demolished so suddenly, she bumps into happy-go-lucky saki salesman Ryohei who is the spitting image of Baku, but clearly a different person (he’s also played by Masahiro Higashide). Initially, she fells as if the universe is mocking her, and her residual fondness for Baku is rekindled. Yet, slowly but surely, she manages to transcend that primal physical attraction and a new happy couple forged in the crucible of time, understanding and dedication. Or so it appears.
Yes, the set-up sounds fanciful in the extreme: people bumping into other people; doppelgangers cropping up; people able to vanish from the face of the earth. But Hamaguchi orchestrates the narrative with such a deft and delicate touch, that there’s always a hint of something more mysterious at play. In the prologue, during a short sequence detailing Asako and Baku’s courtship, the pair crash their motorcycle, and while lying on the tarmac, start to giggle before diving into an embrace.
The film is peppered with these tiny, ambiguous and suggestive moments which operate on a thematic level (stressing that a near-death experience has no value when it comes to weakening this bond) as well as planting a seed of doubt that Asako and Beku really did survive the smash-up.
It’s a moving and lightly philosophical treatise on the interplay between love and memory which toys with the idea of ghosts and resurrection without ever formally framing the narrative in those terms. Does Asako essentially have to become a new person in order to truly allow Ryohei into her heart? Is it enough to realise that definitions of love are broad, varied and sometimes even banal? And is it possible to fully extinguish a past obsession, to totally purge an image from the mind and start anew? Every scene in this movie poses a question or alters a perception.
Hamaguchi’s mastery is making you hang on every moment to see how he undercuts or develops on his thesis. It’s thrilling to try and guess where he’ll take the story next. His young stars serve him perfectly, and if you wanted any more, there’s an amazing supporting role from a white cat who monitors these shenanigans with sublime feline indifference.
Published 15 May 2018
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