One of Japan’s best known actresses with a career spanning over forty years, Kaori Momoi is perhaps just as well known for her outspoken and refreshingly direct approach to interviews as she is for her work with such esteemed directors as Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Yoji Yamada, and Shohei Imamura. One of the few Japanese actors to have made a successful international career starring in Hollywood movies such as Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha and international art house fare in Alexander Sukurov’s The Sun, Momoi currently lives in LA and is even reportedly preparing to play Scarlett Johansson’s mother in the upcoming US live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. It’s perhaps less surprising then that in choosing to adapt a short story by one of Japan’s best young writers, Fuminori Nakamura, Momoi has chosen to shift the story to LA whilst maintaining its Japanese characters.
We first meet Azusa (Kaori Momoi) as she’s washing her foot in a public sink near a beach. A strange conversation with an American man implies that she’s involved in some kind of sex work and the pair head into a hotel where they’re stuck in a crowded lift with a collection of noisy strangers. Aside from this lift scene which is replayed with slightly different emphasises throughout the film, the narrative, such as it is, is provided by Azusa’s two sessions with passive psychiatrist, Dr. Sanada (Yugo Saso). In the first of these she discusses her feelings of guilt over the death of her family, killed in a fire started (perhaps not) by accident as she carelessly played with matches as a child. Later sessions see her accompanied by an official looking American man, seated in the corner but unable to understand much of what’s going on. Now Azusa is suspected of a violent crime but finds herself confessing to various other moral and criminal transgressions, but then again perhaps “confessing” is the wrong word.
Transposing the story from Japan to LA brings an additional layer of alienation to Azusa’s story as she finds herself alone and set adrift far from home. The slightly rundown, beachside faded glamour of the outside world contrasts neatly with the cool, ordered interior of the psychiatrist’s office where Sanada appears almost indifferent to Azusa’s monologue as he makes coffee in a vacuum pot and stares blankly straight ahead. It’s little wonder why Azusa remarks that perhaps he’s just not suited to this kind of work during her first session and even later states that he’s really just a sounding board for her – she’s monologuing for real, applying the talking cure to herself.
Intercut with Azusa’s monologues and the reoccurring lift scene in which Sanada also appears, Sanada is seen with his own, not quite happy, family. Married to a fellow doctor working at the same clinic, Sanada seems a little uncomfortable with his confident, dominant wife. Conversing in English at home the couple share extravagant meals prepared by their housekeeper with their little daughter but as Azusa’s monologues continue the family scenes become ever more strange and disjointed and Sanada is even seen wolfing down a plate of high grade beef in his pyjamas whilst sitting next to a bright burning fire inside a patio chimney heater. Azusa maintains control, both in the room and out, with Sanada left behind as passive observer.
Expertly played by director and lead actress Momoi, Azusa is a necessarily unreliable narrator as she offers her series of sad stories each of which leads towards a fire. Betrayed by men from her father onwards leading to a failed marriage, inappropriate relationship with another Japanese man in the US, and an ill fated assignation with an American possibly more interested in her daughter, Azusa’s only constant has been the fire but it also seems to spark her madness. It’s impossible to tell how much of what Azusa is saying is “true” at any given time as her oddly circular narratives fracture off yet return to the same point but what she appears to crave from Sanada is the simple act of acknowledgement – of being seen, understood, and respected as a human being.
Reportedly shot in just ten days for a minuscule budget, Hee is anchored by a strong performance from its leading lady but is occasionally undercut by Sanada’s passivity which leaves her without the necessary pushback. The English language actors offer their lines in a slightly surreal manner which adds to the heightened atmosphere of the piece but does not always gel with the other theatrical elements and, at times, proves jarring. Though sometimes too obtuse for its own good, Hee takes an interesting, experimental approach to its material and displays a nice flair for composition even if the cinematography itself remains more conventional. A frustrating, if sometimes fascinating, experience, Hee is the story of woman trapped in flames with only the last remaining hope that we will be able to see through the smoke and heat haze to finally acknowledge her presence.
Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)