Indie director Hirobumi Watanabe has previously appeared as a version of himself in his own films, playing a self-involved and childish indie filmmaker railing against the world’s failure to recognise his genius in 2018’s Life Finds Away. For Malaysian director Lim Kah-Wai in Your Lovely Smile (あなたの微笑み, Anata no Hohoemi) he takes a rare leading role in someone else’s film doing much the same only with a little less self-laceration as he attempts to reorient himself amid personal and professional anxieties of the pandemic-era industry. 

Once again living out his ordinary days in Tochigi, Hirobumi sighs sadly as he reflects that no matter how many awards he gets his work will never equal that of New Wave masters such as Shohei Imamura and Kaneto Shindo. He’s having trouble completing a script and has no other work coming in. His brother is mainly supporting him through piano lessons, while Hirobumi keeps trying to reassure himself that a big offer from Netflix or Amazon is sure to turn up soon. He may be a “world famous director” but that doesn’t really help him pay the bills and only adds to his sense of anxiety. 

The irony is that in Life Finds A Way Hirobumi had received some harsh feedback from a woman who advised he consider making “good films” like Koreeda rather than the stuff he normally makes, but this time he gets a break, from Toho no less, who hire him for a shoot in Okinawa because Koreeda is too busy filming in Korea. What he experiences there is further humiliation at the hands of a deranged male star (Shogen) who orders him to write script in under a day and has his bodyguards follow him around to make sure he’s applying himself. But of course, the kind of film he wants (not that he really knows) isn’t the sort of film Hirobumi usually makes, or at least gangster romance hasn’t played much of a role in his filmmaking so far. Then again, when the actor asks about winning best actress awards, he might have a point that his films have rather tended to be male-centric save for the cheerfully absurd I’m Really Good which starred his young niece. 

While searching for artistic fulfilment, Hirobumi is often struck by visions of himself walking in the desert where he comes across a woman whom he subsequently encounters in “real life”. The humiliating experience in Okinawa sends him on a more literal journey travelling the length of the Japanese archipelago visiting indie cinemas in the hope that one of them will agree to screen his films. Even within this more friendly, environment, however, he discovers little support. Troubled by the economic conditions of the pandemic era, even microcinemas have to consider the bottom line and are reluctant to play anything other than established classics. Even when one rural cinema invites him for a mini retrospective, it turns out to be run by a man and his daughter who enlist him to hand out fliers and sell tickets in person to the less than enthusiastic locals only a handful of whom eventually show up. The closer he draws to the far the north, the more hopeless he begins to feel about the realities of indie filmmaking in the contemporary society. 

There is a poignant quality in Hirobumi’s obvious loneliness and desire for artistic approval, along with the sense of hopelessness he finds mirrored in some of the cinema owners who struggle to see a future for themselves in an age of streaming and changing taste in entertainment. All of the venues Lim visits in the film are genuine provincial theatres, their owners giving small interviews over the closing credits explaining the difficulties they find themselves in along with their intention to keep going as long as they can. The owner of Bluebird Theater is 92 years old and still running front of house, while the fourth generation owner of the only cinema left in his town wonders if he’ll have to shut up shop if his daughter decides she doesn’t want to inherit the business. The onscreen Hirobumi finds himself reevaluating his relationship with cinema, and even with his beloved Tochigi, as he travels as far as it’s possible to go in the depths of a Hokkaido winter trying to keep something at least alive. Lim’s aesthetic is warmer than Watanabe’s and less deadpan if equally melancholy, but evidently in tune with his sensibility as the two filmmakers come together in shared frustration with the indie life.

Your Lovely Smile screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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