After School (アフタースクール, Kenji Uchida, 2008)

after school posterKenji Uchida is well known for intricately constructed farces but he takes intrigue to new heights in After School (アフタースクール), allowing a mid-way twist to completely reverse everything you thought you knew. Yet at heart Uchida’s film is as uncynical as it’s possible to be even when our heroes find themselves embroiled in a large-scale conspiracy of corporate corruption, organised crime, and police machinations. What begins with a confession spirals outwards into a complicated web of deception and counter-deception proving it really is all connected, even if not quite in the way you first thought.

A salaryman, Kimura (Masato Sakai), enters a reverie staring at the pregnant woman (Takako Tokiwa) sitting opposite him over breakfast, flashing back to a breezy middle school day when she (presumably) nervously handed him a letter.  Kimura leaves for work and borrows the fancy Porche belonging to his high school teacher middle school friend, Jinno (Yo Oizumi), to go to a work meeting in Yokohama. While he’s away the woman goes into labour leaving Jinno to take care of everything but alarm bells start ringing when no one can reach Kimura the following morning. Meanwhile, Kimura has been seen with a mysterious woman at a hotel which seems to have right royally spooked his bosses who have hired a shady private detective, Kitazawa (Kuranosuke Sasaki), to track Kimura down. Kitazawa thinks his best bet is to start at Kimura’s old middle school – which is where he runs into Jinno who agrees to help look for his friend.

As might be assumed, all is not quite as it seems. Shady PI Kitazawa is in deep with the yakuza to whom he apparently has massive gambling debts. At a low ebb, he decides to ask his male assistant to run away with him to Sapporo (which he agrees to do) but this case just might be his salvation, especially once he works out that both ends are connected and he could technically double his pay out with a little strategic blackmail. Kitazawa is as cynical as they come. He thinks nothing of invading Kimura’s life and is fully prepared to make use of Jinno’s seeming innocence, claiming that naivety and pureheartedness make him sick. Later he attempts a pathetic act of petty revenge against Jinno for no real reason that could have ruined his entire life but instead ends up another cog in the grand wheel of Uchida’s finely crafted farce.

Kitazawa’s cynicism is eventually what leads to his downfall. His detective brain so wired for motives and gains is unable to process the idea that some actions are merely altruistic and offer no further reward than the pleasure of helping a friend. Jinno, at first a goofy school teacher with an improbably expensive car, soon becomes the film’s MVP and the only still point in a constantly turning world. Taken to task by Kitazawa for his continuing goodness, Jinno offers a perfectly schoolmasterly reply to the effect that there’s a snotty kid like him in every class, sneering away too cool for school and decrying everything as boring when really the problem isn’t school, it’s Kitazawa.

What eventually looked like a sordid affair turns into a beautiful romance as the truth is gradually revealed. The title refers not just to the setting of the initial flashback, but also to the entirety of adult life. Jinno’s innocence and goodness are belittled by Kitazawa who accuses him of being stuck in middle school with a childishly naive way of seeing the world. This is in a sense true, Jinno has never lost his childlike sense of justice and fair play, willing to go great lengths to help his friends even if it puts him in danger and forces him into some sticky situations which are not his natural milieu, but Jinno’s faith and loyalty are the qualities which eventually see him through and make possible the poignant, hopeful ending despite all that has gone before. Corrupt politicians preaching “family values” whilst associating themselves with dodgy corporations who are taking back handers from the yakuza, hidden policemen, shady PIs – there’s certainly a lot of darkness here but if anything is going to beat it, it’s sincerity and goodness rather than guile and cunning.

Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 February 2018
  • Filmhouse – 6 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Luck-key (럭키, Lee Gye-Byeok, 2016)

luck-keyWhen it comes to intelligent farce, Kenji Uchida is Japan’s undisputed master so remaking his 2012 tale of love, crime, and mistaken identity Key of Life was always going to be a tall order. Thankfully it’s one Lee Gye-byeok largely manages to meet as he skilfully relocates the tale to South Korea and swaps Uchida’s complicated farce for a more lateral double sided comedy. While not as accomplished as Uchida’s hilariously intricate original, Luck-key (럭키) manages to charm with its thoroughly romantic, comically absurd, approach.

On one side of town, hitman Hyung-wook (Yu Hae-jin) finishes off his latest assignment and disappears into the night, while on another out of work actor Jae-sung (Lee Joon) contemplates suicide only to be interrupted by his landlady’s exasperated pleas for the back rent. In a fairly hopeless state, Jae-Sung heads out to the local bath house, intending to bid the world goodbye in a more dignified state. Hyung-wook also ends up at the same destination to wash the blood off his hands, only to embarrassingly slip on an errant piece of soap and knock himself out cold. Remembering admiring Hyung-wook’s expensive watch on the way in, Jae-sung makes a split second decision and switches locker keys with the unconscious rich guy.

Jae-sung decides to put his affairs in order by using Hyung-wook’s money to pay off old debts as well as experience one day as wealthy man before doing himself in. When Jae-sung discovers Hyung-wook has lost his memory and assumed Jae-sung’s identity, he decides against giving back Hyung-wook’s belongings in favour of trying on life in the fast stream. Jae-sung has also grown attached to a young woman who inexplicably appears on Hyung-wook’s TV, though he does wonder why Hyung-wook has all of these weapons and telephones, not to mention a big board of investigation material, stored away in a hidden room…

Each man begins to live a different life thanks to assuming the contents of the wrong locker. Hyung-wook has the rawer deal as he can’t remember anything about himself and ends up at Jae-sung’s apartment to find it covered in old food cartons and beer cans with his hangman’s noose still lying in the middle of the floor. With only two bucks in his wallet and no cards, he even has to ask the paramedic who brought him in, Lina (Jo Yoon-hee), to lend him the medical fees. Somewhat improbably Jae-sung’s identity card tells him that he is 32 years old (coincidentally the same as Lina) which can only make one think that he must have had a very hard life. Nevertheless, Lina decides to help him by taking him home and getting him a job in her mother’s restaurant.

Even though he can’t remember who he was before, Hyung-wook gradually reveals a different side to himself as Jae-sung, enjoying being a part of Lina’s busy family life. Jae-sung, by contrast, moves further towards the shadows as he becomes increasingly determined to protected the woman on Hyung-wook’s TV screen who turns out to be a whistleblower in a high profile fraud case. Eun-ju (Lim Ji-yeon) is a woman afraid for her life who leaves her apartment as little as possible, but eventually Jae-sung tracks her down and begins to woo her in impressively romantic ways, only to discover he’s made everything worse by misunderstanding the nature of the situation she finds herself in.

Experiencing a different sort of life highlights for each of the men what was making them so unhappy – Hyung-wook realises the value of a warm and supportive family life whilst Jae-sung finds purpose and drive in his desire to protect Eun-ju. Both men had, in a sense been “acting” as a part of their daily lives, living a kind of half life which frustrated their attempts to move forward. Through living in someone else’s world, these hidden parts of themselves – Hyung-wook’s softer, more feminine side, and Jae-sung’s masculine desire to charge of his life, become “unlocked” and allow them to become the people they always meant to be all along.

Dispensing with Uchida’s farce structure, Lee Gye-byeok more or less eliminates the third major character from the original script in order to more neatly split the action between the two guys who then mirror each other as they each begin to move more towards the centre whilst also making tentative moves towards romance. Filled with gentle, often absurd humour and taking pot shots at everything from gangster clichés to diva TV stars, Luck-key makes all the right moves in its relocation to Korea, bringing both amusing comedy and genuine romantic warmth with it.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Weekend Blues (ウィーク エンド ブルース, Kenji Uchida, 2001)

weekend bluesKenji Uchida travelled to America’s San Fransisco State University to study filmmaking before returning to Japan and making this, his debut film, Weekend Blues (ウィーク エンド ブルース) which later went on to claim two awards at the prestigious Pia Film Festival for independent films earning him the scholarship which enabled his next film, A Stranger of Mine. However, Uchida’s film, though resolutely his own, individual creation, plays much more like the Japanese indie movies of the time and particularly those of the similarly considered, if drier, Nobuhiro Yamashita than it does to late 20th century American indie or the mumble core movement.

As in his later work, Uchida builds around a finely constructed farce only this time the central conceit is a bout of amnesia suffered by the central character, Kensuke, who is a depressed salaryman still reeling from his ex-fiancé’s sudden exit from his life. He takes solace in his one solid relationship – that with his committed slacker friend, the similarly named Kenji. However, on visiting Kenji’s apartment one Friday night he discovers Kenji has gone and got himself a girlfriend. Kensuke gets extremely drunk and also tries some of the weird drugs that Kenji has got from somewhere or other before accompanying Kenji’s new squeeze, Ayumi, on her way home.

That’s the last thing Kensuke remembers before waking up in a faraway town. On returning to Kenji’s flat he’s shocked to learn it’s actually Sunday already and he has absolutely no idea what’s been going on for the past 48 hours.

Jumping to the natural conclusion that the drugs are to blame, the two Kens descend on the dealer who seems to be some kind of man scientist researching a formula to give the “wimpy” men of today some of their caveman swagger back. Ironically named “samurai” the drugs themselves are more of a Mcguffin but provide a key into this world of nervous, unambitious, soon to be middle-aged men who’ve each had their girlfriends poached from under their noses by the more socially successful. A parade of jilted lovers passes by until we reach the more psychotic set who’ve decided to embrace some decidedly dodgy methods in order to ensure they won’t be humiliated and run out on ever again.

Uchida also adds another level to the amnesia based shenanigans with a sideline in internet dating where everybody is lying to everyone and presenting version of themselves that’s very much idealised. Kenji has told his prospective girlfriend that he’s a successful high earner despite the fact he doesn’t actually have a job at all, but at least his interest in the new woman has persuaded him to try and get back into the employment market so his full scale frauds can be demoted to gentle half-truths before things (hopefully) start to get more serious. In turn, his new lady love, Ayumi, may not be all she seems either.

Kensuke’s larger philosophy lies in a need to be needed. Now that his fiancée has left him, discovers he was no longer necessary to her anymore, Kenji feels himself a man without purpose and the prospect of simply continuing like this for another fifty years is beginning to frighten him. Again there’s a wider question here about interconnectedness (which is also the heart of any farce) in the supposedly “connected” world in which you can pick up a true love fantasy by lying about yourself on the internet – even if the mutual misrepresentations end up spinning their own pretty web of deceit in their own sweet time

Uchida’s first film is a necessarily low budget, indie effort but makes no apologies for itself or claims of being anything more than it is. That said, the performances are universally strong and the direction often interesting even given the obvious budgetary constraints. A very modern kind of farce which also looks back the salaryman comedies of the ‘60s, Weekend Blues is a good indication of Uchida’s future direction whilst also succeeding as an enjoyably off the wall comedy in its own right.


A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Kenji Uchida, 2005)

stranger of mineSometimes life throws you a pretty crazy night but unbeknownst to you the whole world has gone crazy too. For the disparate group of people at the centre of Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Unmei Janai Hito) , this proves to be more than usually true. A cute romantic encounter may end up going in a less than cinematic direction while ex-girlfriends, detectives and even the yakuza all conspire to frustrate the lovelorn dreams of a nice guy businessman who never even realises the total chaos which is ensuing all around him.

The film begins with a sad scene of a woman, Maki, carrying large bags and forlornly dropping a key through a letter box. She pawns what looks like an engagement ring and thinks about what to do next. Whilst sitting alone in a restaurant, a man asks her to join him and she is overjoyed to find some company. The man is Kanda, a small time detective and childhood friend of businessman Miyata who is also broken hearted as his girlfriend has left him. The girlfriend, “Ayumi”, is not all she seems and is already mixed up with yakuza boss Asai. Mix in a MacGuffin of some missing money and one ordinary night among millions just got very complicated indeed!

Uchida starts out with a fairly standard indie rom-com approach as the two brokenhearted jilted lovers Maki and Miyata are brought together by Kanda’s machinations but just as we think we’re about to head into some kind of Before Sunset scenario our perspective shifts and we find out just why it is that Kanda seems to be acting so manically. In fact, he’s been looking out for his friend all along but it’s getting kind of complicated at his end and the one thing he 100% does not want is for the rather innocent Miyata to figure out that he’s at the centre of dangerous mob caper because his ex-girlfriend, whom he still think is an angel, is really not the innocent flower he thought she was.

Just another night in the city, the point of view shifts around these five characters whose lives intersect like cogs turning some giant, unseen machine. We’re shown one set of events only to have our understanding of them undercut by seeing them again from another angle. Everything is a coincidence, or maybe nothing is, but each of these five characters wade into each other’s story leaving a drama filled wake with only poor Miyata seemingly oblivious to what’s really going on.

A Stranger of Mine plays like an extremely complex farce in which fate conspires to have some fun with five ordinary people and Uchida mines the situation for all the (sometimes dark) humour it can offer. Loosely split into three sections divided by title cards bearing the names of the characters, the film takes inspiration from classic Hollywood screwball comedies and film noir whilst adding a more modern, non-linear approach as Uchida plays and replays his scenes to make us see that things are not always the way they look at first glance.

While obviously a low budget, independent effort, A Stranger of Mine offers surprisingly high production values and boasts excellent performances from its tightly composed cast. The script is fiendishly complicated and exacting yet Uchida pulls it off with a keenly observed eye. Though improbable, the events are never implausible and play out with a kind of off beat inevitability that further underlines the film’s mildly ironic, comic tone. Gleefully playful, A Stranger of Mine may appear a little slight on the surface, but just as its multi-layered narrative suggests, the perspective only deepens on a closer look.

Unsubtitled trailer: