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by Jay Seaver

"Minimal action, maximum tension."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: On the surface, Naoki Hashimoto's "Birthright" is the opposite of what a thriller should be: It is long, static scenes of people doing nothing and even saying nothing, with no frantic activity to be found. It's the sort of film that seems calculated to drive me up the wall. And yet, it is riveting, serving up a story that wrests incredible suspense from its very simplicity and starkness.

A young woman (Sayako Oho) comes to a seaside town and starts observing the Takeda family that lives there. Daughter Ayano (Miyu Yagyu) and father Minotu (Hiroshi Sakuma) don't notice her, and while mother Naoko (Ryoko Takizawa) occasionally seems to, she doesn't acknowledge the silent watcher. After a few days, she makes her move, donning a school uniform and meeting Ayano on the road, saying a boy at a different school wants to meet her. This gets Ayano into her car, where she is handcuffed, blindfolded, and brought to a large, empty building. The girl locks the doors and unshackles Ayano. And then they wait.

From the very start, Birthright is designed to be unnerving, with shots that place everything in the middle distance and sound that is mixed the same way, voices overheard from a distance away. The bulk of the movie has no music, and the girl (given a name on the film's website but not, IIRC, within the film itself) is far from forthcoming. It is an atmosphere set up to prime the audience for the next thing to happen, but not necessarily to deliver it. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that there really is not "next thing", and that what the audience is seeing now is in fact the point of the exercise - and if that's the case, anything can happen.

As much as this movie is frequently defined by its inaction, it uses that in interesting ways. Cuts to Naoko and Minotu going about their normal routine, only mildly concerned about where Ayano is imply terrible feelings of guilt to come down the line, but what we see after the kidnapper contacts Naoko is even more horrifying than what the audience might expect. Writer/director Hashimoto has basically one bombshell to drop, and it's one that can be predicted well before he does so, but it's a tribute to how measured the direction is that he can return to this moment multiple times and still generate an impact. And while he's only got one salient fact to reveal, he does have a couple of interesting tricks up his sleeve, including taking what initially seems like a cheap twist or fake-out and putting it to excellent use.

He also (per the QA after the screening) put his two young actresses through a grueling ordeal, having them actually go without food and water while they shot the scenes in the warehouse in roughly real time. Sayako Oho and Miyu Yagyu legitimately look like hell by the time it's over, but their performances are more than just the results of deprivation. Oho gives her character a hardened stare that makes perfect sense once we understand her character, and the way she lets bits of emotion slip out piecemeal in the middle of the film is exactly right. Yagyu, meanwhile, has more room to be frantic; she is completely unprepared for this level of powerlessness and garners the audience's sympathy even when they might otherwise want her to be more proactive. Meanwhile, in the cutaways to Naoko, Ryoko Takizawa is creating a paralyzing combination of not just fear but shame, indicating just how powerful the latter can be even while the subject is never broached during the main ordeal.

To be honest, it probably should be addressed more directly; though the ending the film has is both believable and potentially devastating, there are missed opportunities in there. There is, I think, another crushing way to end the movie that seems more in line with where this film has been heading, but it might not have been what the audience needed after the previous hour and a half.

You can only end a movie once, and after all the unconventional but right choices leading up to the finale, I'm inclined to second-guess any second-guessing. "Birthright" gets a huge return from its seemingly-minimal ingredients, and is a perfect example of how to make seemingly doing nothing work.

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originally posted: 07/21/11 01:36:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Naoki Hashimoto

Written by
  Naoki Hashimoto
  Kiyotaka Inagaki

  Sayoko Oho
  Miyu Yagyu
  Ryoko Takizawa

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