Memories of a Dead End (막다른 골목의 추억, Choi Hyun-young, 2018)

Memories of a dead end posterSometimes dead ends show up unexpectedly, as the heroine of Memories of a Dead End (막다른 골목의 추억, Makdareun Kolmokui Chueok) points out while ruminating on the abrupt revelation which has just rendered all her life’s hopes and dreams null and void. Adapted from the Banana Yoshimoto novella, Choi Hyun-young’s debut feature follows a young-ish Korean woman to Japan where she finds out something she probably knew already but didn’t quite want to accept and, thanks to the kindness of strangers, begins to see a way forward where she feared there might not be one.

Yumi (Sooyoung), a woman in her late 20s from a wealthy family, has been engaged to Tae-gyu (Ahn Bo-hyun) for the last few years but he has been working away in Japan supposedly preparing for their shared future. Unable to get in touch with him and worried he seems to be dodging her calls and refusing to return her texts, Yumi decides (against the advice of her steadfast sister) to go to Japan and confront him. Sadly, her family were right when they advised her that perhaps she should just forget her fiancé and move on. Tae-gyu has met someone else. On arriving at his apartment, Yumi is greeted by another woman who knows exactly who she is and why she’s come, but takes no pleasure in explaining that she and Tae-gyu plan to marry and were hoping Yumi would take the hint given a little more time.

Confused and heartbroken, Yumi checks into a hotel for the night planning to return to Korea the following day but a nagging phone call from her “I told you so / plenty of fish in the sea” mother (tipped off by her loudmouth sister) makes her think perhaps that’s not the best idea. Wandering around, she winds up at the End Point hotel and cafe where she cocoons herself away to think things through, trying to reconcile herself to the “dead end” she has just arrived at in the life path she had carved out for herself.

“End Point” is not perhaps an auspicious name for a hotel. A hotel is, after all, a deliberately transient space and not in itself a destination. The reason it might accidentally become one is perhaps on Yumi’s mind when she decides to check in, but despite the name the cafe is a warm, welcoming, and accepting place perfectly primed to offer the kind of gentle support someone like Yumi might need in order to rediscover themselves in the midst of intense confusion.

This is largely due to the cafe’s owner, Nishiyama (Shunsuke Tanaka), who, we later discover, was himself neglected as a child and almost adopted by the community who collectively took him under their wing and sheltered him from his childhood trauma. This same community still frequents the End Point cafe and is keen to extend the same helping hand to those in need, becoming a point of refuge for a series of lonely souls many of them travellers from abroad. Despite her desire for isolation, Yumi is finally tempted out of her room by the gentle attentions of the cafe’s regulars who make sure to include her in all their gatherings, reawakening something of her faith in humanity in the process.

In introducing her to the cafe, Nishiyama remarks that though it is literally in a dead end, many begin their forward journeys from here. A dead end does not, after all, have to be an “end point” but can become an opportunity to turn around and start again without necessarily having to go back the way you came. Yumi likes the End Point so much she briefly considers staying, but it would, in a sense, be a betrayal of its spirit. Nishiyama, becoming a staunch friend and ally, finally comes to the conclusion that her former fiancé was not a bad man even if he was a weak one, but that in all the time he knew her he never discovered the “treasure” of her heart as he seems to have done despite knowing her only a few days. Yumi takes this new knowledge with her on her forward journey as she abandons her much commented on practicality for warmhearted connection as a path towards fulfilment, learning to treasure her “dead end” memories not as time wasted but as a pleasant diversion which led her to exactly the place she needed to be in order to discover the treasure in her own heart and the willingness to find it in others.


Memories of a Dead End screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 17, 7pm, at AMC River East 21.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Kitchen (キッチン, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1989)

KitchenBanana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen was first published in 1988 and instantly became a publishing phenomenon. The first film adaptation came not long after with the identically titled Kitchen (キッチン) directed by Yoshimitsu Morita in 1989. Like most of Yoshimoto’s work, Kitchen deals with people learning to live with grief and cope with the aftermath of tragedy. However, though Morita’s script sticks closely to the novel for the first half of its running time, he later deviates into a conventional romantic youth drama much like his more populist offerings of the time.

The film opens with a strange image of a young woman asleep in front of a fridge in an otherwise entirely darkened kitchen. The young woman is Mikage Sakurai – orphaned at a young age, Mikage (Ayako Kawahara) was raised by her grandmother who has recently also passed away leaving her entirely alone in the world. The one place Mikage has learned to feel at peace is in a kitchen and she has her sights set on a culinary career.

At the funeral, Mikage meets a young man who had apparently become good friends with her grandmother through his part-time job at a florist. After striking up a friendship with Mikage, Yuichi (Keiji Matsuda) invites her to the upscale apartment he shares with his mother, Eriko (Isao Hashizume). Mikage falls in love a little bit with their well appointed and spacious Western style kitchen which is filled to the brim with all the latest gadgets. Soon after, Mikage moves in with Yuichi and Eriko and begins to rebuild her life with a new family beside her.

It’s difficult to avoid spoilers in this respect but for anyone who is familiar with Yoshimoto’s novel, it’s important to note that one particular tragedy which informs the entirety of book has been completely eliminated in this adaptation. The biggest change Morita has made is in his depiction of Eriko who is a trans woman and the father of Yuichi having undergone gender reassignment after the death of Yuichi’s mother.

The film is actually very positive in dealing with Eriko’s character and doesn’t try to elide or make a joke out of her. However, whereas Eriko in the book is described as an extremely glamorous and beautiful woman to the extent that she may seem slightly intimidating at first despite her warm and loving nature, here she is played by a male actor with a man’s haircut and slightly frumpy fashion sense as well as being depicted more like a stereotypically gay male character. Likewise, though Eriko’s friend Chika-chan is still in the movie, we never see anything of Eriko’s life at the gay club she runs or much of her life away from Yuichi and Mikage. That said, the change in question does offer a little more hope and happiness for Eriko than her outcome in the novel.

Morita also gives the film more of the quirky, light hearted feel he adopted in many of his other populist films from the ‘80s. Yoshimoto’s work often successfully straggles a difficult tonal gap in which it’s filled with a kind of existential despair but simultaneously light and cheerful. Though Mikage is numbed with grief throughout the novel which prevents her from assessing what it is she really wants from life, the film is satisfied with depicting her as a fairly ordinary young woman whose problems stem more from trying to step out alone for the first time rather than trying to emerge from a life altering tragedy like the death of your last remaining family member.

However, Morita retains the magical realist qualities of the novel through his use of dream sequences and expressionist imagery. Juxtaposing bright colours of nature with the often extremely dark backgrounds, he creates an impressive sense of differing realities with Mikage’s cheerful on the surface yet depressed inner life recreated through iconography rather than through performance or dialogue. He also retains the use of the moon as symbol for life and happiness, presenting a source bright light in an otherwise dark world which can help to guide the way in times of trouble.

As a film in its own right, Morita’s Kitchen is certainly very much of its time though perhaps not unwatchable, but as an adaptation of Yoshimoto’s novel it ultimately fails on all counts. Veering way off tone in its second half, Kitchen takes on much more of a conventionally romantic narrative eschewing Yoshimoto’s major messages about the need to come to terms with a traumatic past in order to move on and the importance of understanding your true feelings while there’s still time to act on them. Yoshimoto is more concerned with showing that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin and you can’t have one without the other but Morita’s story creates a much smoother, more natural path for a romance between Mikage and Yuichi which ultimately robs it of much of its power. That said even if Kitchen disappoints as a literary adaptation it isn’t entirely without interest and does at least offer several examples of Morita’s idiosyncratic gift for composition.


Opening scenes of the film (dialogue free)

Kitchen was also adapted as film in Hong Kong directed by Ho Yim in 1997, starring Yasuko Tomita and Jordon Chan. Banana Yoshimoto’s source novel was first published in English in 1993 (translated by Megan Backus) and is still in print from Faber & Faber in the UK and Grove Press in the US.

 

Asleep (白河夜船, Shingo Wakagi, 2015)

asleep posterBased on the third of three short stories in Banana Yoshimoto’s novel of the same name, Asleep (白河夜船, Shirakawayofune) is an apt name for this tale of grief and listlessness. Starring actress of the moment Sakura Ando, the film proves that little has changed since the release of the book in 1989 when it comes to young lives disrupted by a traumatic event. Slow and meandering, Asleep’s gentle pace may frustrate some but its melancholic poetry is sure to leave its mark.

Terako (Sakura Ando) is a young woman who sleeps a lot. Almost all the time, in fact. The kept woman of a married man whose wife, oddly enough, is in a coma following a traffic accident, Terako has been in a kind of limbo since her former roommate and good friend committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Prior to her death, Shiori had taken up an unusual occupation – she lies next to lonely strangers who just want to know that someone is watching over them while they sleep and will be there when they awake. This also meant that she rarely had the opportunity to sleep herself as her occupation demanded keeping a watchful eye over her charges and falling asleep on the job seemed like a lapse of professionalism.

Mr. Iwanaga, Terako’s boyfriend, is an enabler of the first order. He prefers that Terako not work so that she’s available for him whenever he feels the need to call meaning that she’s always at home, sleeping. She sleeps and sleeps but finds no relief from her exhaustion. Even her dates with Iwanaga feel “like the shadow of a dream”. The constant flashbacks and meandering timelines perfectly reflect someone trying to think through the distorted reality of fractured sleep where the boundaries between dream and reality have become impossibly blurred.

There’s an odd sort of triumvirate of sleeping women here – Terako herself who does little but sleep but is still constantly exhausted, Shiori who denied herself sleep until ultimately deciding to take enough sleeping pills to go to sleep forever and Iwanaga’s wife who’s trapped in coma. At one point, in a conversation which either happened some time ago or not at all, Shiori remarks that Iwanaga has Terako “on pause” because he’s afraid to move on from his wife (the fact of his having an affair while his wife is lying in a hospital bed even has Terako labelling him a cold, unfeeling man but then she says she likes that kind of thing anyway). It’s as if she’s waiting for someone to hit the spacebar to wake her up again, though Iwanaga is “on pause” too – torn between the choice of abandoning his wife who will likely never wake up and being labeled heartless, or sacrificing the rest of his life in devotion to a memory.

Help does come, in a way, through the intervention of a either a dream or a kind of cosmic transference – an impossible conversation between two women equally in need of it. Shingo Wakagi’s adaptation is more interested in psychology and existential questioning than it is in hard realities or concrete solutions. A vignette of a moment in a young woman’s life, Asleep gives us little in the way of backstory or explanatory epiphanies, and finally ends in the characteristically ambiguous way many Japanese novellas often do though there is a hint at a possible shift in Terako’s life offered by the final images. A poetic meditation on dream, memory, grief and loneliness, Asleep is beautifully framed, if appropriately distant, look at modern life in limbo.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015

First Published on UK Anime Network in 2015.