There are a few ways you can make your film stand out if you have no budget for splashy effects, exotic travel, or surefire-hit movie stars. The Tarantino route is to write sharp dialogue and direct with a bag of tried-and-true tricks perfected in other films, combined in unexpected ways; The Raimi route is to use your budgetary restrictions to their best advantage through innovative camera work and actors who are up for anything; The Coen/Soderbergh route is to craft a clever story that engages the viewer in a way which few blockbusters can. The latter route has proven especially fruitful for Japanese filmmakers who have no shortage of talent, but meager budgets at best.
Like fest favorite Kenji Uchida's previous film "A Stranger of Mine", "After School" more or less follows the Coen brothers/Steven Soderbergh model in that it has its share of twists and turns and subverts the audience's expectations in a detective story of sorts. It's the kind of movie Soderbergh makes in between his more commercial fare: a smart, small-scale whodunwhat with a cast full of likeable, whip-smart actors. The plot is more or less synopsis proof, but for brevity's sake boils down to the desperate search for a missing accountant who may or may not be blackmailing his boss (and his boss's mob connections) over… something, perhaps his relationship with a club hostess who also happens to be a favorite of the local Yakuza boss. The plot provides multiple points of intersection between Japan's seedy pornshop and Yakuza underbelly, big business, the Shanghai mob and a local high school.
Uchida scores a hat trick with a main cast of Yo Oizumi, Kuranosuke Sasaki and Masato Sakai. Sasaki and Sakai usually play the smartest guy in whatever film they're in, so pitting them against one another as a seedy private eye and an MIA accountant playing hookie with a yakuza moll is inspired. Oizumi especially thrives in one of his meatiest roles. Despite having seen his supporting work here and there (he plays a small but vital role in this year's Taiga drama "Ryomaden"), I was unprepared for him to command the screen as he does side by side with Sasaki for the better part of the film. Movies like this can succeed or fail in the casting stage, and I imagine all the good will Uchida generated with "Stranger" got him this trio of talent. With three leading men playing three primary roles, it's impossible to guess who's right, who's wrong, and who's pulling the wool over who's eyes.
The film falls just shy of really clicking. Elements of it work very well, especially the longish portion with Sasaki and Oizumi using any means at their disposal to track down Sakai. It's certainly a compelling story, and only near the end did I realize how crafty the first reel was. Uchida takes advantage of common movie shorthand to establish situations and relationships which are then subverted by what we subsequently learn, a trick that stays just this side of too clever; Many of the final reel's twists and turns are face-palm moments, as you realize that your assumptions about the who and what were, in fact, just that—assumptions. So Uchida the director has only Uchida the screenwriter to blame when the end finally arrives and there's no sense of tidiness or closure. The finale is not as playfully random as that of "Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth", nor is it as snug and neat as "Fish Story"'s cherry-on-top denouement. The end we get is low-key and half open—not a bad thing, but definitely lacking the wit and zip that marks the best of the Coens' or Soderbergh's capers. I wonder if audiences will be willing to give Uchida another chance.