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Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats
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by Jay Seaver

"This Fuku is never flat."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Huh. I missed something about this movie when reading the program description, although on a certain level it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that this is a big-hearted, charming movie that pays off in some unexpected ways. It also has one of the single funniest sequences I've seen in a movie this year, which never hurts.

The "Fuku-chan" of the title is Fukuda Tatsuo (Miyuki Oshima), a 32-year-old house painter who is fairly well-liked both at work and the cheap apartment block he calls home, where he winds up making peace between his neighbors Nonoshita (Asato Iida) and Mabuchi (Tateto Serizawa) over the matter of the gigantic snake the latter is keeping as a pet. He isn't quite rude in how he rebuffs his supervisor and friend Shimacchi's attempts to set him up with women, but is even more standoffish than one might expect given how he's overweight and not exactly handsome. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, pretty businesswoman Chiho Sigiura (Asami Mizukawa) quits her job after winning a photography prize, only to be put off that when her mentor (Toshiyuki Kitami) proves more interested in her body than her eye.

Where this is going is kind of obvious, but just as the audience is starting to wonder just how writer/director Yosuke Fujita is going to arrange the meet-cute, he throws the audience a curve that makes Fuku's and Chiho's story a bit more complicated than a girl who is, by her own admission, kind of focused on surface-level things realizing that Fuku has a big heart underneath a face that, while expressive, is not conventionally attractive. What's more impressive is that he doesn't waste much time in doing so after starting to hint that the audience is looking in the wrong direction. And while the events of the story are more or less the ones you might expect, Fujita doesn't just acknowledge how these two would likely view each other in real life, but deflects the film from the romantic comedy path fairly explicitly.

That doesn't make the film any less charming or funny. The sequence in the curry restaurant, involving Fuku, Chiho, and a proprietor who is philosophically opposed to serving water with his spicy curry is worth the price of admission by itself, a combination of stone-faced absurdity, perfectly-played reactions, and hilarious background details that escalates into something even more farcical. The movie is packed with surreal visual oddity, banter that is somehow both dry and highly emotional, and funny ideas that spring naturally from Fuku's and Chiho's complex, but basically good, personalities. There are some darker undercurrents as well, but Fujita keeps them buried at just the right depth for them to make sense as they're exposed.

The oddest bit, though, is the casting of the lead. Fuku would seem an ideal role for Fujita's Fine, Totally Fine star YoshiYoshi Arakawa - and in fact it may take a bit of time before the audience can tell Fuku and Arakawa's Shimacchi apart in the opening scenes - but the part instead went to comedienne Miyuki Oshima, whose somewhat high-pitched voice is the only on-screen hint at the actress's actual sex (although now that I'm aware it was a woman playing Fuku, I wonder if Shimacchi's comments about Fuku's massive organ were meant to play into or dismiss potential androgyny). She's great in the role, though, bringing all the warmth that Fuku's seemingly child-like, optimistic view on life needs but also shifting gears nicely when he needs to be shy or carrying around some kind of hurt. It's never a cheap way to make him seem off or different; every scene works just right as it is.

Compared to that, Asami Mizukawa seems to be getting off easy, but she anchors her portion of the movie just as well. She is genuinely funny without having to play Chiho as quirky or weird; her physical performance in the curry scene is spot-on perfect and she hits the nail on the head everywhere else as well, whether for laughs or more serious emotional moments. The rest of the cast does their part as well - Arakawa and Kami Hiraiwa are good as Shimacchi and his wife Yoshimi, as are Mei Kurokawa and Maho Yamada as Chiho's roommate and a girl Yoshimi means to set Fuku up with. Asato Iida and Tateto Serizawa wind up standouts as Fuku's neighbors, though; Serizawa brings a sad but funny emotionality to Mabuchi while there's a genuine darkness to even Iida's funny bits. Toshiyuki Kitami and Kanji Furutachi, on the other hand, are utterly hilarious as their deranged characters (the photographer and restaurateur, respectively).

By the time it reaches its finale, "Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats" has broken out of the romantic comedy formula in a way that a lot of independent movie try to manage but can't quite do without feeling flat or cynical. It's genuinely funny and sweet without ever feeling like it's just going through the motions.

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originally posted: 08/05/14 04:22:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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