Starring: Kyoko Hasegawa Grégoire Colin Jun Murakami Kittipoj Mankang Netsai Todoroki
Running time: 89 minutes
Reviewed by Eric Evans
The Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo is famous for three things: the giant lantern that attracts thousands of tourists every day at the main gate, the old-fashioned entertainment clubs that spawned a generation of comedians (not the least of which is Takeshi Kitano), and Kappabashi Market--home of the thousands of varieties of artificial food lookalikes used in restaurant window displays to entice passers-by. This isn't the wax fruit with visible seams that grandma used to have on the kitchen table; These fake foods look incredibly lifelike and realistic, down to the beads of condensation on a mug of beer or the technicolor swirls of fatty juice on the surface of a bowl of ramen. There's an incredible amount of technique and labour behind these artificial meals, but all the artistry in the world can't change them into actual food.
With her 2008 film "Nanayomachi," writer/producer/director Naomi Kawase has crafted an anti-movie, a strangely hollow experience at times beautiful to look at but devoid of plot or character or, ultimately, interest. Stuff happens, but all of it seems disconnected from any plot, from the previous scene, and certainly from the viewer. It's an intriguing concept to throw together a Japanese woman, a Frenchman and a Thai family--all characters that can't communicate with one another through words, but somehow find ways to make themselves understood. But I'm not sure they do make themselves understood at any point, and the humor and drama that might have resulted from the various scenarios never quite surfaces. There are scenes that half work: Kyoko Hasegawa's Ayako, a Japanese tourist in Thailand on a whim, is openly flirting with masseuse-in-training Greg (Gregoire Colin) as he explains--in his native French, that she can't understand a word of--that he is finally embracing his homosexuality. There are plenty of directions for this to go--jokes to be made, awkwardness to be exploited for dramatic gain--but the scene just sort of rambles on without any point in mind. In what should have been the film's dramatic center, a child goes missing and the uncertainties spawned by the language barriers lead to accusations, shouting and violence. But again, Kawase lets the scene drag on and on until it becomes repetitious, then silly, then peters itself out. It's a frustrating (and I believe conscious) choice on the director's part to avoid any and all structure in "Nanamoyachi," and the result isn't some kind of stream-of-consciousness naturalistic film, but rather a series of vaguely interconnected nothings that hint at a story worth telling but never quite get there. It's a frustrating viewing experience.
The cast is earnestly committed to what they're doing. In particular, Kyoko Hasegawa gives an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance that elevates her from pretty face to promising actress. She's been striking on screen before--in "Peach," the first segment of "Jam Films: Female", she's positively radiant--but she's never looked this effortlessly sexy before and likely never will again. Her Ayako goes from confident to terrified and everywhere inbetween, just without any goal in mind. It's a lot of actorly effort without any sort of narrative to support it; a waste. She trusted her director, and it's a shame that she wasn't better rewarded for the vulnerability and resolve she shows onscreen. I'd be interested to see if she can harness some of what she poured into "Nanayomachi" in the interest of a more conventional story. Perhaps Daihachi Yoshida can find a role for her?
It's possible that Kawase is trying to say something about the futility of trying to express your true self with language, or the universality of emotional experience, or the breakdown of ego in the presence of primal nature. Something. Anything! But "Nanayomachi" is none of those things; It looks like a movie, but has no more substance than the plastic meal models in a restaurant window. The film doesn't even succeed as a travelogue since we see so little of Thailand. At very least Kawase could have given us a better look at the exotic lushness of the jungle, the color and bustle of the city, something. Anything.