The sign that the Locarno Film Festival is finally winding down is the challenge to the audience (and the jury) of the international competition in the form of a 5+ hour drama, Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour. Yet this is no arty Lav Diaz epic, but rather a sprawling, realistic drama of four female friends in their late 30s who each come to re-consider their relationships as one of their group goes through a painful public divorce. With such a generous length, Happy Hour is afforded the ability to dedicate unusual amounts of time to conversations between the women, the elaborate extent of which forms the principle stage for discussion, evaluation and revelation of relationships and feelings. At the same time, two art gallery events—one a kind of group physical therapy, the other a reading by a new author—also are shown in essentially real time, and are followed then by discussions with the artists about their art, discussions that flow effortlessly from reactions to the art to its relationship to the attending men and women, and finally to details and considerations about their relationships.
In this manner, without any kind of ostentatious form other than the longer than normal length of many scenes, Happy Hour creates an emotionally and psychologically intimate but geometrically ambitious constellation of relations and interactions. It reminded me generally of the films of Eric Rohmer, both in its precision of observation of the lives of these men and women (the film is set in the Japanese seaside city of Kobe), their homes, cafes, bars and so on, as well as in its dedication to allowing characters to talk about how they see themselves, how they see others, and their own values, and for us then to observe what they say and do later and determine how they compare or add up. Its central group of women all frustrated but somewhat inarticulate about their stymied fulfillment of their emotional and sexual lives, the film unobtrusively conspires for them all to clash, each in their own way at their own time, re-evaluating their friendship, their unemotional men, and themselves. In its combination of patient, novelistic storytelling, attention to a too-often cinematically unsung time in a woman's life, and precision yet clarity of form, Happy Hour has emerged at the end of the festival as one of its best films.