Life: Untitled

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/15/20 11:44:43

"Broad-ranging but also nicely focused."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENING AT THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Writer/director Kana Yamada's "Life: Untitled" is based upon her play, and it's a fair translation, but it's kind of funny how things that are just part of how things work in one medium can make you wonder if something else is up in another. This one, for instance, opens with a character addressing the camera directly and mostly takes place in one location, no big deal in the theater, but do it in a movie and eventually something seems like it might be up. Is this some sort of deal where there's really just one character and everyone else is some sort of figment of her imagination or fragment of her personality? Probably not. Well, not literally, but it's that sort of movie.

The girl who starts by breaking the fourth wall is Kano (Sairi Itoh), who has had what she describes as an "ordinary life" - though not one that exactly has her eager to jump into any sort of intimate relationship. She goes to work for the Crazy Bunny escort service, but recoils the first time that she's in a hotel room with a client. She doesn't quit, though, instead staying on to help around the office, assisting the manager by answering phones, keeping the fridge stocked, and making sure everybody gets paid. The girls include bookish Shika (Aika Yukihara), gossipy Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), and businesslike Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki), as well as Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who at about 30 is the "older woman" of the group, and Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu), who has a tendency to smile a little too wide and laugh a little too hard. Drivers include friendly Hagio (Dai Ikeda) and bleach-blond Ryota (Shunsuke Tanaka), who is maybe not having the best reaction to how serious a crush Kyoko (Kokoro Morita) has for him.

There aren't a whole lot of men to be found in this movie, just enough that it's not entirely obvious that Kano has cocooned herself among this group at least partially in order to avoid dealing with them. That's kind of impressive, because Yamada is fairly pointed during that first monologue that she's had some really lousy experiences that culminate in a lousy first assignment, but avoidance has a different feel than overt anger. One doesn't necessarily notice that a lot of them men who might be aggravating the situation are off-screen, just being referenced rather than having it demonstrated, but it builds. It is, without calling attention to itself as such, a precise sort of encapsulation of how men tend to treat women as just sex objects and then look down on them even more when they leverage their sexuality. It's kind of exhausting and frequently humiliating but not something a woman can completely extricate herself from.

That's not just because it's not practical, but because Crazy Bunny isn't exactly an us-against-the-world sisterhood. Sairi Itoh does really nice work with Kano, whether showing the emotional extremes she finds herself pushed to at either end or, more often, demonstrating how eager Kano is to bond with the other women (and maybe Hagio), occasionally dancing over the line into where it's cringy, but never getting stuck on the other side. She's balanced by Aika Yukihara and Tomoko Nozaki on one side, playing different sorts of reserved while still carrying themselves as people who use their sexuality, and the likes of Aimi Satsukawa and Yuri Tsunematsu on the other, with Tsunematsu making for an especially untethered Mahiru. She's able to come across as much further out there than the rest of the girls without stealing or destabilizing the movie.

It's good ensemble work, keeping Kano at the center even though other characters are doing more through much of the movie, never losing track of anyone even as some characters move in and out of the agency. The filmmakers also do an impressive job with how they construct the central location - it holds together and doesn't feel particularly run-down or sterile, but the way it's built low to the ground diminishes the women a bit, and though it feels like one space, it can feel pseudo-professional or sleazy depending on where Yamada and cinematographer Maki Ito point the camera. It's not overly slick but seldom looks limited despite the limited locations, even if one transition toward the end suggests that the producers couldn't safely shoot one pivotal moment, and the explanations for it happening offscreen are awkward.

That's the only moment where Yamada and company really falter, though; most of the time they're able to build a movie that does a nice job of getting into Kano's head and making it a short hop from there to the rest of its young women. That it's a movie that could be exploitative but never is makes for a nice bonus.

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