0.5mm-poster-20.5mm is only Momoko Ando’s second film following on from her lesbian love story manga adaptation, Kakera: A Piece of Our Life. Starring her real life sister Sakura Ando in the lead role, 0.5mm is undeniably more complex and epic in scope than her previous film but retains some of its whimsical atmosphere and benign objectivity. Encompassing such disparate themes as Japan’s rapidly ageing population, entrenched sexism, archaic ideas about gender, and what it’s like to find yourself at the bottom of the heap thanks to a series of unfortunate incidents, 0.5mm is a hugely impressive sophomore effort from Ando and one of the best Japanese indie movies for quite some time.

Sawa is a home care nurse and her current assignment is caring for an elderly, bedridden gentleman who lives with his daughter and grandson. One day, the old man’s daughter makes an extremely odd and inappropriate request of Sawa which she eventually agrees to. However, things go just about as wrong as they could possibly go and Sawa finds herself out of a job and, as she lived in nurse’s accommodation, out of a home too. That’s not the end of her troubles as she manages to leave her coat, in the pocket of which is an envelope containing her life savings, on a train. At this point she’s pretty much down and out when she notices an elderly gentlemen confusedly trying to find out if it’s OK to sleep all night at a 24 hour karaoke box. Pretending to be the old man’s date she hires a room for two and bamboozles him into it for a night of singing and snoozing. In the morning it turns out the old man quite enjoyed the mad adventure as he’s temporarily run away from home because all his son seemed to care about was the inheritance so he thought he might as well spend it all himself. This strange encounter begins Sawa’s odyssey into a series of similar episodes where she blackmails an elderly gentleman into letting her stay with him for a while until one final meeting brings things full circle.

Sawa is definitely a very unusual woman. Good at her job, she’s a caring person in more ways than one. Her new found method of survival is certainly a novel one, and not entirely ethical, but then all she’s doing is exploiting circumstances in the same way circumstances have had a way of exploiting her. Though she weaselled her way into these men’s lives, she did, at least, care for them. Yes, she did the cooking and the cleaning and assisted with healthcare too but she also helped them to realise a few things about themselves and move on with their lives. Whether it’s saving them from yakuza backed pyramid scams or listening to their traumatic memories of the war, Sawa has a knack for seeing people’s hidden pain and another for knowing how to make it better.

Yet, her various encounters with the older generation speak of a number of different social problems that cannot be repaired by one person alone. The first man she meets feels unwanted by his family and is looking for escape, a reassertion of his independence and perhaps a little revenge. The second is really quite mad – obsessively counting the trees in the park, stealing bicycles and letting people’s tires down but he too is alone with no one looking after him. The third man has a bedridden wife and, apparently, a taste for erotic school girl magazines but no children of his own to take care of him. The fourth man discovered a teenage child he’d never met though is incapable of forming a relationship with him. Society is full of lonely, elderly people who either have no close family or have become estranged from them. Some of them have become vulnerable and half mad through extreme isolation and others have become embittered, violent or trapped in the past.

In the way that these men react to Sawa there’s also a complex system of ideas at play as each of Sawa’s employers seem incapable of defining exactly what sort of “services” they expect of her. Nurse, housekeeper, mother, courtesan? From the original, perhaps innocent though far from appropriate, request each of the men Sawa encounters can’t help but view her as a some kind of sex object and react with various degrees of embarrassment about it. To them she is many things though never quite a “person” until, perhaps, their relationship begins to near its end and each reaches some kind of epiphany brought about by her presence. However, Sawa herself is perfectly aware of each of these complexities and perfectly willing to exploit them with a sort of amused ruefulness.

The 0.5mm of the title refers to a metaphor offered on a farewell cassette tape from the second of Sawa’s old gentlemen that one person may be only be able to move a mountain by 0.5mm but if everyone got together the mountain would move and you could start a revolution. At once he bemoans Japan’s military past but also laments that something of the community spirit from those days has been lost. That if we all just stopped living in wilful isolation and embraced the fact that we’re all here together at the same time we could make things better for everyone. Much of the film is about the distance between people – young/old, male/female it isn’t the distinction that matters but the series of invisible walls that exist to keep people apart.

Warm, enigmatic and surprisingly funny (if in a kind of dark way) 0.5mm is is a complex and thought provoking film that is also often very beautiful and immensely enjoyable. At 196 minutes, it’s undeniably a long film with an episodic structure though it largely manages to sustain its lengthy running time without outstaying its welcome. Rich and strange, 0.5mm is all the better for its unresolved mysteries and offers an impressively nuanced cross section of modern society made all the more detailed thanks to its epic scope.

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