During the four-and-a-half-hour flight to and from the East, I caught Kurosawa Kiyoshi's much-acclaimed Tokyo Sonata on the tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me. Not the most ideal condition for movie-watching, but one has to make do when one is stuck in a tiny seat in Cattle Class, with nothing much to do and sleep being an almost impossible endeavour with the constant buzz of the airplane engines and little space to manoeuvre the restless body.
Well, I actually didn't catch the entire film, so to speak. I had missed a substantial amount of the beginning when I was flipping through the channels and duly discovered that it was showing on the flight. When I reached the part where the wife meets the burglar, I suddenly fell asleep. When I awoke, the film had ended. When the film replayed, I missed a bit of the beginning again, but managed to catch much of what I had missed the first time. Then, we got into serious turbulence. Being thrown around right after you've had your lunch isn't exactly a fun thing. And watching something on a tiny screen while that happens doesn't help matters at all.
So, I closed my eyes and drifted listlessly in the subconscious before I gave myself the chance to go for the barf bag.
But whatever I managed to see was great. It wouldn't be fair to do a full review since I didn't see the whole film, but suffice it to say that I didn't expect so much humour in it. But as with all of Kurosawa's films, there's a very dark undercurrent that slowly emerges and overtakes everything else. Snatches of his thriller-horror instincts can be glimpsed in one dream sequence and some shadowy interior scenes. But this is a family dramedy, and one that was way ahead of the economic crisis that's hitting us right now. So the film's become extra-relevant and scary all of a sudden.
Right before my trip, I caught another Japanese comedy, but one that is a straight-out crowd-pleaser. I've long been a fan of Mitani Koki, ever since I saw Welcome Back, Mr McDonald (Rajio no Jikan). That film was the longest running at GSC's International Screens in Mid Valley, and I think it still holds the record till today. I don't remember how many months it ran, but I do remember going to see it a total EIGHT times.
Welcome Back is also another crowd-pleaser (does Mitani make any other kinds of movies, eh?) and a completely feel-good movie that doesn't make a bad word out of "feel-good." It's a movie full of characters that one would have encountered in the course of one's life, a note on life and all its quirks. It's all about how life requires us to constantly adapt to new circumstances.
That seems to be the one continuing thread in all of Mitani's films, but far from being a one-trick pony, he makes it fresh in every movie, with new nuances and dynamics. It's no different with his latest, The Magic Hour.
It's a film about filmmaking, and also a look at the fine line between ambition and delusion. While film requires us to suspend disbelief most of the time, The Magic Hour reminds us of that constantly because almost the entire movie is built upon an impossible premise.
A guy caught in bed with his mobster boss's girl is given an ultimatum - get the boss to meet a mysterious assassin or else. Because time is quickly running out, he has no choice but to get a two-bit actor to play the part of the assassin, fooling the actor into believing that they're making a movie where everything has to be so natural that actors stay in character even off-camera and the camera is hidden most times.
Impossible? Yet amazingly everyone buys into the scam, mobster boss, actor and all. The story even takes place in a fictional town that it seems hasn't developed very much and remains looking like a 1940s movie set!
As impossible as everything is, Mitani has us in the palm of his hand from the get-go, never letting up the pace. I was initially skeptical of the two-and-a-half-hour running time, having been told by some that the movie's a bit too long. But the movie felt like a breeze to sit through, with nary a draggy moment. This really goes to Mitani's credit as a really talented writer; everytime you think he has reached the end of an overstretched idea, that he's reached a dead-end, he surprises you with even more gags and funny situations.
And like Welcome Back, it all reaches an explosive finale, with every character appearing in the last scenes. The ending is inspired, to say the least. And by the end of the long running time, you'd be feeling that buzz of Mitani's trademark feel-good-ness.
Life's OK, Mitani tells us, and no matter what the curve ball it throws us, even if we mess up, there's always tomorrow. And somehow I believe him, no suspension of disbelief required.