Friday, February 20, 2009

REVIEW: Happily Ever After

自虐の詩 (Jigyaku no uta)

Released: 2007

Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Miki Nakatani
Hiroshi Abe
Toshiyuki Nishida
Kenichi Endo
Tamaki Oka

Running time: 115 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s body of work has certainly jumped around a lot. He’s probably best known in North America for his half of the “Duels” project, 2003’s cat fight par excellence “2LDK”, but he’s also made the downright silly “Sushi King Goes to New York” then shifted gears to helm the big budget “20th Century Boys” trilogy for Toho. With 2007’s comedy/ drama “Happily Ever After” Tsutsumi shifts stylistic gears yet again, this time channeling no less than Takeshi Kitano to tell the story of a woman caught in a co-dependent relationship with a violent thug; that is he channels Kitano until the last act of the film when Tsutsumi and co-screenwriter Yoshiie Goda ramp up the emotion and sabotage the first three quarters of the film.

Working from Goda’s own manga “Happily Ever After” centers around Yukie (Miki Nakatani) a mousey waitress in a noodle restaurant in Osaka’s run down Shinsekai district who’s stuck in a relationship with Isao (Hiroshi Abe), an unemployed low life who spends his days playing pachinko with his other low life buddies and drinking away any money he wins. When he does come home Isao is greeted with a cramped but spotless apartment and meals lovingly laid out by Yukie. The only problem is anything from spilt soy sauce to too much money spent on a sushi dinner has him flipping out… literally. Isao could turn table flipping into an Olympic style event or with the slow-motion photography that Tsutsumi uses to capture the plates and Yukie being flung through the air, a ballet performance.

So why would a woman put up with a guy that’s either passed out, grunting monosyllables, or smashing furniture around the apartment? From the flashback preface that starts the film we learn that Yuki’s search for happiness has been an uphill climb from day one. With her mother having passed away when she was little and her father (played by “Tsuribaka Nisshi” star Toshiyuki Nishida) getting thrown in jail for robbing a bank the young Yukie (played by Tamaki Oka) is left working a paper route and suffering from a near fatal case of low self-esteem. With her childhood tragedies and Isao’s brutish behaviour you could see Yukie’s life being fodder for a Dr. Phil bestseller.

Nakatani seems to be building a career on playing a doormat. Her role in “Happily Ever After” and her role in Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Memories of Matsuko” are nearly identical, but the lack of hysterical cartoon visuals in Tsutsumi’s film and the superb comic timing of supporting actors Kenichi Endo as Yukie’s lovelorn boss and Nishida as her father made her predicament a much more palatable experience for me. Also watching Abe clomp around in his geta and punch perm it’s impossible not to think of a younger Takeshi Kitano. 15 year’s ago “Happily Ever After” would have been a perfect project for the TV comedian/ auteur director, and I think that Tsutsumi knew this and consciously introduced elements of Kitano’s style into his film. Yes, the moving camera and use of jump cuts doesn’t present Kitano’s classic visual aesthetic, but the running sight gags, the sudden violence and the sweet musical score by Hiroyuki Sawano all bring to mind films like “Sonatine” and “Kikujiro”. So does the clever structuring of the story, although it’s after a third act plot reversal that lands Yukie in the hospital that the similarities to Kitano and a lot of my enjoyment of the film ended. Gone was the somewhat cruel but very funny sense of humour and in came a saccharine and maudlin explanation of what really formed the bond between Yukie and Isao that had “Happily Ever After” dovetailing into the exact same over-dramatics that had me disliking Nakatani’s turn in “Memories for Matsuko” so much.

Had Tsutsumi and Goda only hinted at the past that Yukie and Isao had shared and trimmed the film by a half hour I think “Happily Ever After” would have been a resounding success, but as it stands it’s a flawed film, but one’s that fans of “Memories of Matsuko” (and there are many of you out there) would definitely get something out of.

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