Distinctly anomalous in the competition of the Cannes Film Festival this year was Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II: in the red carpet sheen of that gala world, its modest production and unshowy demeanor suggested a more appropriate venue in the city might be the Directors’ Fortnight, where the pretense towards grandiosity is less a requirement and subtlety is given the patience to be discovered. Hamaguchi’s film, the director’s follow-up to the much acclaimed but still little seen Happy Hour (2015), feels distinctly independent and off-kilter, made in a world alternative to the festival’s Japanese arthouse staple, Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose new film Shoplifters premiered the same day in the same section and went on to win the Palme d'Or. Kore-eda’s textures of warm colorwork and values of gentle humanism stalwart against sinister social contexts seemed more appropriate to what Cannes desires to be than Hamaguchi’s metaphysically-tinged tale of the ominous side of love.
The amorphous ambiguity of desire and expectations are in fact the subject of Asako I & II, a darkly lovely romance adapted from Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel. In a pre-titles prelude, the eponymous heroine (Erika Karata) notices the carefree, lumbering frame of Baku (Masahiro Higashide), hair a tousled mess, demeanor cockily aloof, at a photo gallery show by Shigeo Gocho titled “Self and the Others.” They each exit without meeting, but by the riverside kids are setting off firecrackers, and, in a delirious sequence whose evocation through capricious clarity highlights Hamaguchi’s approach, the startling noise draws each person towards the other. They dreamily share names and their meanings, and kiss passionately: Cut. “...And that’s the story of how we met”—for the tale we’ve been watching turns out to have been recounted by the couple at a bar to a friend. Coincidentally, another friend shows up, recognizes Baku and, unprompted and with peculiar phrasing, tells him to “focus on eating dreams” and to stop bothering Asako. This subtle discord between the perception, experience, and the story itself proves to be the driving tone of Asako I & II. With a fragile precariousness of narration, Hamaguchi introduces a skeptical curiosity about his drama and a gulf of possibility for what lays ahead. And the film has only just begun: After Baku leaves one evening to pick up groceries and doesn’t come back until morning, Asako is warned by his friend that her unpredictable, shaggy-chic boyfriend often leaves for long periods of time. When he returns bizarrely late after this errand, Baku assures Asako that even if he’s late, he’ll always come back to her. But when he leaves again, the film cuts to a playful title card explaining that the next time he left he never came back—years have passed and now the movie starts properly.
We are then introduced by Ryohei, played by Higashide again and recognizable to us as such, though clearly a different person: cleaned up, easy-going, affably conventional and talkative, starting a new salaryman job in the city. It is only a few minutes before Asako meets him and is shocked by the reappearance of her lost love—but Ryohei is not Baku. Intrigued both by her beauty and her strange demeanor, Ryohei hits on her, gets invited by her roommate to a dinner party, and gently tries to date Asako to no avail. Her eyes deep black voids of solemnity, her behavior circumspect to the point of removal from those around her, Asako seems shell-shocked or retreated into herself. Whether this is a change caused by the encounter with Baku’s double or whether she has remained in this state since his disappearance is one of several shadowed ambiguities Hamaguchi seeds into his film. That the protagonist of the film switches from Asako to Ryohei seems even more perverse, abandoning to her pain love’s victim while the story is essentially picked up by a naive newcomer. Falling in love with the mysterious Asako—who for Ryohei seems to have the strange, independent remove from the world that Baku had for her—is such a powerful, mirrored echo that their relationship, despite gradually flourishing, seems destined for some kind of tragedy.
The seductiveness of this delicate romantic mystery is profuse its ambiance, but so too is a multivalenced ominousness, coming from slant rhymes with Hitchcock’s Vertigo and similarly ghostly love stories, unshowy shadowplay by cinematographer Yasuyuki Sasaki, and associations of Masahiro Higashide with two eerie recent pictures by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Creepy and Foreboding. (Higashide’s gangly frame and gentle demeanor as Ryohei feels at times a variation on Jimmy Stewart’s awkward sweetness.) Which is not to say that Asako I & II is a genre film, but rather that its story pinpoints spectral qualities of the uncanny and unpredictable that can cling to relationships over time. It has the frame’s edge paranoia of Jacques Rivette's films and the unpredictable life flow of those by Jacques Rozier. The possibility, even the likelihood, that Baku will show up again in Asako’s life seem forever possible in some form, whether this means some manifestation of her old flame in the aspect of her new love, or, even worse, the physical form may reappear, a doppelgänger begging comparisons. This second love with Ryohei—being lived out by the second Asako of the title, perhaps—exists in a world covered in the shadow of the first one. No matter that her time with Baku was short and her relationship with Ryohei stretches into the years, even going so far as to live together and share a beautiful cat. A ghost is ever present in Asako’s psyche, haunting with the suggestion of other paths taken, other lives lived, other stronger, truer passions than this one in the present that are possible in a world that is so open to change.
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