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Sad Vacation
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by Jay Seaver

"Nobody hurts you more than family."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: I don't know if Japan has the old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family, though that idea is at the heart of "Sad Vacation". That doesn't mean that people won't try, though, with decidedly mixed results.

Take Kenji Shiraishi (Tadanobu Asano) and Yuri Matsumura (Kaori Tsuji). The opening text informs us they witnessed Yuri's older brother (Kenji's best friend) kill a man and then turn the gun on himself. Yuri couldn't handle it, and is institutionalized in a state of denial; Kenji looks after her between what have usually been minor criminal jobs. In the latest, though, he's helping smuggle Chinese immigrants into the country, looking after a child when his father dies in transit. Sensing it wouldn't be wise to stick around - there are sickos out there for whom untraceable kids are a valuable commodity - Kenji opts for more honest work, as a designated driver. Two of his fares have a big effect on him: He and bar hostess Saeko Shiina (Yuka Itaya) are quickly smitten with each other, and while small trucking company owner Shigeo Mamiya (Ken Mistuishi) isn't significant himself, Kenji is sure that his wife Chiyoko (Eri Ishida) is the mother who abandoned him and his father when he was a child.

Writer/director Shinji Aoyama packs quite a bit into this film, to the point where it could easily become too much: If the studio had mandated he cut the film down to under two hours, for instance, he probably could have jettisoned the whole subplot with Aoi Miyazaki as Kozue Tamura, an eighteen-year-old girl who takes a job with Mamiya's trucking company after leaving home, especially the man who comes from her hometown to find her. The trucking company is populated by hard-luck cases with potentially interesting backstories, and one of the story lines stops relatively early even though its last scene would often be the impetus for everything that happens afterward.

Of course, that's part of the point of the greater story: Even though we've seen Kenji decide to look after Yuri and the boy A-chun, there is an emotional dead spot in him that he inherited from his mother, either from her genes or her absence. The grim events of Sad Vacation's later reels are the result of a relationship that explodes into dysfunction almost as soon as it re-establishes itself. Aoyama has Mamiya say that Kenji underestimates "the force of [Chiyoko's] mercy", and it's hard to say whether Chiyoko is truly merciful or manipulative in a remarkably far-reaching and vicious way. Both may be true; the drive to create and protect a family has led to a great deal of kindness and cruelty.

Tadanobu Asano is a ubiquitous figure in Asian cinema that makes its way to the west, and not just because he's prolific and works with popular directors. He translates well to other languages because he tends toward roles without a lot of complicated dialog, and silence needs no subtitles. Kenji's not quite so quiet as some of his other roles, but he's still a guy whose eyes often say more than his words. He's also got the ability to charm the audience even when he's mixed up in questionable activities.

Eri Ishida is a much colder presence; she's middle-aged and hardly playing a glamorous character, but there's a hint of femme fatale to her scenes with Asano. Not in a creepy, incestuous way, just that this is a woman who knows how to get what she wants from men, and her son is in no way immune. The rest of the cast is good, too - Kengo Kora is young and angry as Chiyoko's second son; Ken Mitsuishi is all too good-hearted as his father. Yuka Itaya is pleasant as Saeko, and Aoi Miyazaki is always interesting as Kozue.

I didn't learn until afterward that both Kozue and Kenji had appeared before; Miyazaki played Kozue in Aoyama's previous film, Eureka, the events of which are referenced here, while Asano played Kenji in a short film. Aoyama mines those films for flashbacks, but they are in no way necessary to enjoy this one. He does a fine job keeping things moving, even if it does mean occasionally giving certain subplots the short shrift - and as much as Kozue's story, for instance, may seem removable compared to other bits, I don't think I'd want the movie to go without it; Kozue offers a nice counterbalance to Kenji. I like how he has everybody spend the entire movie involved in moving things in one capacity or another (human trafficking, delivering cargo and bringing people home) only to mostly get caught in quagmires.

And the end is quietly devastating, final in many ways while making it painfully clear that family is something that can never truly be escaped. All in all, quite the excellent piece of work.

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originally posted: 07/05/08 00:25:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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