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Hold Me Back
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by Jay Seaver

"A romantic comedy for those who have been passing on romance."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL AND THE 2021 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Those of us inclined to follow links to Japanese lifestyle stories when we come across them feel like we've been reading about young people - especially women - opting out of the dating pool and what a demographic time bomb that is for the past twenty years, although it has seldom seemed like those women have shown up in exported pop culture as protagonists. "Hold Me Back" does offer up a romance that the audience can get behind, but it's a relatively rare movie in that it's as interested in its protagonist being single as not.

That would be Mitsuko (Rena "Non" Nounen), who has one of those "office lady" jobs seemingly as much about meeting eligible bachelors as becoming a skilled administrative assistant but isn't committed to either, even at 31. She fills her time and enjoys her freedom, taking art classes, fretting a bit whether it's odd to go to amusement parks on her own, finding herself amused by the crush colleague Nozomi (Asami Usuda) has on handsome but vapid Carter (Takuya Wakabayashi), and exchanging postcards with an old school friend, Satsuki (Ai Hashimoto), who has settled in Italy and has invited her to come for Christmas. She enjoys cooking for herself, and as a result runs into Tada-kun (Kento Hayashi), a somewhat younger salesman who regularly visits her company, at the local market. They hit it off, even if Mitsuko isn't looking for romance.

At first, it seems like Mitsuko isn't quite alone, talking with "A" (voice of Tomoya Nakamura), who initially seems like an especially helpful personal digital assistant, with "A" standing for "answer", but in their very first conversation, Mitsuko says "you're me", and it makes for an intriguing sort of dynamic. Mitsuko isn't presented as someone with a split personality so much as she mostly asks A what norms and expectations are so that she can put that in a corner and do what she wants. It's why A is silent in Italy, for instance, and it lets writer/director Akiko Ohku (adapting Risa Wataya's novel) get a bit abstract toward the end as she confronts both her past and future, because there's trauma in the past when A was in charge and she mostly did what was expected, but things can't go forward with Tada-kun if she decides she wants no part of it.

It lets Mitsuko occasionally be alone but not introverted, and it gives lead actress Non someone to play off, sort of, even when the point is that she's kind of okay on her own. Non and Ohku tend to paint Mitsuko as having uncertainty that seldom actually crosses the line to doubt for most of the film, and it makes for entertaining give-and-take no matter who she's paired with, whether it be A or Tada-kun, whom Kento Hayashi makes an entertaining counterpart to Mitsuko, seemingly a little grateful that Mitsuko is a bit older so that his nervousness around this woman he likes can be managed by the deference that goes with her being a half-step above him socially.

There's a neat sort of transition in the movie during MItsuko's trip to Italy - as much as it starts by comedically highlighting her nervousness at flying and otherwise getting out of her comfort zone, it eventually resolves into something between confidence and bravery, and the difference between her and Satsuki resolves in surprising fashion, even before Ai Hashimoto does some nice, targeted work in laying out how she's not nearly as daring as one would think for marrying a foreigner and moving to Europe. It's at that point that the movie starts to seriously dig into how the two have reacted to the pressures on a young woman in Japan in opposite fashion, which leads to flashbacks of what set Mitsuko on this path. Non tenses up a little, and where Metsuko's conversations with A previously tended to be framed with her looking off-screen, she's more likely to address the camera at that point, justifiably angry and telling the audience some truths they need to hear.

Things get kind of strange toward the end, as a terrible memory mingles with a weekend trip gone awry and how her partitioning a part of herself off into A is maybe not as healthy as it is cute to build into something that's a little disconnected from reality, although it's hard to put one's finger on just how much. It's intriguingly unnerving, if not always successfully so, because of what a deceptively firm grasp Ohku had maintained on the film's flights of fancy. It's also the point where a romantic endgame starts to become tricky, because Tada-kun in specific isn't particularly connected to her issues with relationships in general.

It's a tricky thing to navigate - "Hold Me Back" has a story that resists becoming a romantic comedy, but it wouldn't exactly be satisfying to leave MItsuko where she starts. It's upbeat and clever enough that it can handle finding something else underneath without losing the charm and good feeling that the film was built on

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34550&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/18/21 12:46:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Akiko Ohku

Written by
  Akiko Ohku

Cast
  Non
  Kento Hayashi
  Ai Hashimoto
  Tomoya Nakamura
  Asami Usuda



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