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Happy Flight
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by Jay Seaver

"There's nothing funnier than in-flight goof-ups - on someone else's plane."
4 stars

Commercial air travel has become common enough that even those of us who do not fly very often take it for granted. We should and we shouldn't: Life in the 21st century demands relying on complex systems that it is the job of other people to fully understand, just as they don't understand what others do for them. Still, it doesn't hurt to remember that when you get on a plane, there is a whole host of mechanical, logistical, and professional complexity at work to get you there, and every human cog in that machine has its own story and challenges. "Happy Flight" is not a documentary, but it is nonetheless a chronicle of a day in the life of such a system.

The film chronicles ANA flight #1800 from Tokyo to Honolulu from the perspective of the crew, both on the plane and in the airport. In the cockpit, co-pilot Kazuhiro Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) is being evaluated by imposing captain Noriyoshi Harada (Saburo Tokito) to determine whether Suzuki will be promoted to captain himself. In the cabin, Etsuko Saito (Haruka Ayase) is working her first international flight, and chief purser Reiko Yamazaki (Shinobu Terajima) has a reputation for being not just strict, but mean, with inexperienced crew members. At the gate, customer service representative Natsumi Kimura (Tomoko Tabata) is ready to quit, but is charged with training new hire Yoshida (Kami Hiraiwa) before she goes. Shoji Takahashi (Ittoku Kishibe) runs the control room. Mechanic Nakamura (Ryu Morioka) provides a last-minute tune-up before the 747 takes off, although he usually works out of the hangar.

There are plenty of other characters running around, too: Air traffic controllers, Natsumi's boss, other air hostesses, mechanics, civilian airplane enthusiasts, the guy who clears birds away from the runways, and several passengers. The passengers, tellingly, are almost all nameless. This is a workplace comedy, but one with unusual attention to detail; writer/director Shinobu Yaguchi spent a great deal of time researching his subject and had extensive co-operation with the airline. Interestingly, this close collaboration does not result in a whitewashed feel; while it allows Yaguchi to include plentiful technical and procedural detail, he also picks up on frictions between departments, and also shows the employees as fallible, with seemingly minor mistakes potentially causing big problems.

Of course, it's not like those characters are really screw-ups. They're mostly pleasant folks, with the less-experienced characters tending toward nervousness. Tanabe, Ayase, and Hiraiwa are all funny in how they stumble, finding their own ways to do it: Tanabe's Suzuki through self-consciousness, Hiraiwa creating the image of someone who needs prompting, and Ayase showing Etsuko as having the sort of bad day that leads to slapstick. They all find a good way to sell jokes based on screwing up without giving the impression that these are foolish or incapable people.

The mentor characters are, in their own way, just as interesting creations. Saburo Tokito's Captain Harada is tall and confident, but there's something very amusing about how his attempts to make jokes just don't mesh with his projecting of authority (unusual in that the authority doesn't suffer, though the jokes come off as peculiar). Shinobu Terajima has authority, too, but after we hear about her scary reputation, her crisp efficiency is a pleasant surprise. Tomoko Tabata makes Natsumi kind of grumpy, but also less intimidating to her charge. And Ittoku Kishibe racks up yet another nifty supporting role as the eccentric man in charge of watching the weather and handling the runways.

This is not just a story of a cheerful flight with some zany characters; complications will force things to take a turn toward the melodramatic. It's impressive how well that works out; while many comedies will awkwardly stop and get serious, Yaguchi manages to smoothly tone the broader comedy down, and as the situation unveils itself, the audience can clearly see how both the problem and the solution have their roots in the amusing little bits that had been sprinkled throughout the movie. It's a remarkably skilled bit of work, implicitly tying everything together without the need for the montage of flashbacks that many other films would use.

Some may complain that the film is lightweight, and they wouldn't exactly be wrong. The characters are fairly simple and don't have tremendously complicated stories. That's a part of the movie's charm, rather than a negative: It doesn't need backstories or conflict to make its subject interesting. "Happy Flight" is an eventful day in the life of its subjects, to be sure, but it points out how you can make an entertaining film from an interesting topic without a bunch of soap opera.

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originally posted: 09/19/09 00:19:11
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