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Dual City
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by Jay Seaver

"A confidently independent visit to future Japan."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: I initially started this review by writing about how wonderfully weird Japanese science fiction is, no matter what the medium, but the truth is, "Dual City" isn't that strange, at least not by those standards. It's mainly just detailed, as befits the middle part of a trilogy, though not so densely so that it can't be enjoyed on its own. That approach doesn't always work, but filmmaker Yokna Hasegawa manage to keep putting new things into the environment at about the same speed she's moving through it, making even the messier bits enjoyable.

In this future Japan, the country has been split in two by a civil war. Yoriko Motegi (Aki Morita) is a nurse in a northern hospital, and has the good fortune to be the last potential hostage during a terrorist attack. Fortunately, the most relatively-sane of her kidnappers makes sure she gets out alive, and convinces her to escape to the south with a crucial bit of intelligence. There, she meets a guerilla cell whose leader Jun (Chieko Misaka) has visions which, combined with the intelligence Yoriko has brought, might allow highly-capable agent Ayumi Takagi (Tomomi Mabuchi) to infiltrate the Nephe Corporation's headquarters and stop their operations which are strangling both North and South.

It's a standard sort of sci-fi melange in some ways, a mix of elements that the filmmakers found cool in other stories, but there's an elegance to how Hasegawa and co-writer Tomohiro Hara choose and sequence them that's appealing: One of the first glimpses we get of Yoriko is her using a coin-operated virtual-reality machine to see her dead daughter, then we learn that Nephe uses corpses from the North to create what is called "<information life>" in the South, and then the plans are threatened by one member of the being seduced by a Nephe android. The ideas seem linked, the story moves between them naturally, and the encounters with these strange things move the story along in return. The necessary exposition seems fairly natural, and there's just enough twist on the familiar devices to keep things interesting but not confusing.

Just as impressively, the filmmakers' ideas aren't that far ahead of their capabilities. Independent science fiction on the fairly modest scale of Dual City often finds itself having trouble saving bullets, with the filmmakers trying to cut corners wherever they can so that they can afford that one cool VFX shot, only for that shot not to feel like something that could exist in the film's world. The balance isn't perfect here, but Hasegawa and company manage to augment their oft-spartan environment just enough for it to feel both run-down and futuristic. The film probably won't bowl anybody over with what it accomplishes visually, but it doesn't have many gaps, either. Hasegawa also handles the action scenes with great confidence, giving the attack on Yoriko's hospital the impression of being both vicious and clumsy and then cutting the final adapt with a good rhythm even if integrating the visual effects could go a bit better.

Balancing the protagonists could also go a bit better. Aki Morita is very strong in the opening, quietly establishing Yoriko against a number of more demonstrative characters, and the film is always in good hands as long as she's front and center. At a certain point, it mostly gets handed off to Tomomi Mabuchi, who isn't bad at all considering that her main job is to sell the action, but she's not given much chance to establish Ayumi as much more than tough. It's a bit of a relief when Yoriko moves back to the fore; there's just more going on there.

There's plenty going on throughout, though, and seeing that this is part of a trilogy actually echoes me. I was perfectly happy to view it as a standalone work, and still kind of hope that the connections between films are loose, but Hasegawa has made a sort of film that often trips people up at this level, and more like this is always welcome.

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originally posted: 03/22/16 16:31:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

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