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Day and Night (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Looks good in the light."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Day and Night" opens like a mystery, its hero coming home to find a mess that he can't untangle and which nobody will talk about, but it's more practical than that, more interested in the truth of the present than that of the past. It's hardly the first movie to take this tack, but it's rare that one does such a fine job of letting a person sink into his dark side, convincing himself that he may still get out.

Koji Akashi (Shinnosuke Abe) is the man returning home for his father's funeral; mechanic Kazuyuki Aakashi (Hiroyuki Watanabe) committed suicide afer the town turned on him for reporting a defect in the cars made by Kotomochi Motors, the area's largest employer, and now it looks like the family will have to sell the garage just to give the employees back pay (Koji is, if anything, a cook, not a mechanic). The only person who seems to be particularly sorry for the family's loss is Kenichi Kitamura (Masanobu Ando), who runs the Windmill Orphanage and says Akashi senior was always good to them, building robot sculptures and helping out around the place. He offers Koji a job, and it's not long before Koji learns what keeps the place solvent: Kitamura runs a car-theft ring, and if Koji is going to be part of one venture, he is going to be part of the other.

The film doesn't quite start with comfortable absolutes, although there's a certain comfort in the dynamic between the honorable whistleblower and the self-interested corporation, even if the town doesn't see it that way, in part because the company led a fairly successful smear on Akashi. Soon, though, the filmmakers have gone in on how the good and bad are often found in the same person as Kitamura introduces himself and does not take long to show both sides, presenting Koji, something of a blank slate, with something of a dilemma: His father played by the rules and was hounded to suicide while Kitamura can at least present himself as a convincing Robin Hood. Would Nana (Kaya Kiyohara), the orphaned girl that Koji soon finds himself identifying with, be cared for without this place kept afloat by crime?

Director Michihito Fujii and his co-writers (including star Shinnosuke Abe) take what could be a simple, quickly-resolved set-up and find ways to keep it going, most notably in a fantastically cut central montage that intertwines the work that Koji and Kitamura do at the orphanage and on the streets for the audience in the same way that it does for the characters. It may not quite convince viewers that the double lives are the only way for this situation to work, but it normalizes them, so that as Koji sinks further into this life and starts to use it for his own ends - an increasing focus on Kotomochi cars, including taking a certain delight in stealing the vehicle of company president Yohei Mijake (Tetsushi Tanaka) - it's easier for the audience to just see this as a corrupt world, and for all that Koji may discover that Kitamura's two halves are not necessarily a lot of good supported by a little bad and wish he could be mostly guided by his father's influence, that man was destroyed.

Abe wears that discovery well as Koji; he comes into the film not necessarily naive - his family has always scrape by and the city has already worn him some - but kind of fuzzy and uncertain, and he never entirely loses that even as circumstances hone the more cynical side of his nature. That he always seems like he might be consumed but also never loses his basic essence is a tribute to how well Abe navigates a tricky role. Masanobu Ando does something similar as Kitamura, taking a character built to be kind of suspicious and doing the same sales pitch on the audience that he does on Koji and everyone else around him, making his best qualities seem sharp amid a sea of moral compromise. Kaya Kiyohara comes into her own nicely as the film gives her more to do as Nana than just be the especially sad girl that Koji wants to help, and Hiroyuki Watanabe shines in the part of Kauyuki Akashi. Though only seen in flashbacks, he comes across as simultaneously kind, stern, and uncertain, the sort of man who cannot possibly help but be torn to the breaking point by the situation in which he has found himself.

Fuji and company never mistake this for a grander story than it is - at every point where they could emphasize the national or international scale of either Kitamura's or Mijake's crimes, they find a way to circle back and make it small and local without diminishing it, the sort of thing that is indicative of sneaky good craft all around: The filmmakers are good at figuring out what sort of subplots are implied by the rest of the story and giving them just enough space to matter without redirecting the film, and also establish the world very well using small details, right down to the nifty way that the first and last scenes mirror each other. It's a small but involving crime story, with nary a wrong step to be found

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originally posted: 10/29/19 03:48:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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