Asako I & II (2018)

Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

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If the title character of Asako I & II were more devious, maybe even just more active, then this might be more like Vertigo.  She meets and falls immediately for a young man named Baku, his stringy long hair acting like a theater curtain slowly being drawn over his face, hiding something.  Asako falls desperately in love with him, frets that he might leave her, and six months later he does.

Baku is a deliberate mystery.  We’re not meant to know him, and neither is she.  To Asako he might as well be a human Pinterest board, an accumulation of all the things, qualities and feelings she is most drawn to.  That he is flesh and bone is an almost unlikely cherry on top.

So then when he disappears we’re meant to say, “that makes sense,” since he hardly felt real in the first place.  Sometime later she meets Ryohei and mistakes him for Baku.  His hair is shorter, neat, and he works in marketing for a saki company.  Attracted by her overt interest in him and then confounded by her subsequent aversion to him, Ryohei squirms his way into her life.

Five or so years later they are nestled in some sort of domestic bliss, and an opportunity will arise for them to declare their intention to move on as one.  Of course a friend of the past will recognize the similarities between Ryohei and Baku, and well it’s not that hard considering Baku is now a well-known model whose image looms large on an advertisement in the background of one scene.

The reveal that Baku is a model is probably one of the funnier moments of the film.  There are a few in this vein, that open up the world beyond Asako’s conscious recognition, but based on how the third act plays out these moments start to feel unintentionally funny.

I’m not sure what to make of this film, at least where it ends up.  It’s a push and pull between two levels of attraction.  You have Baku who reflects everything immediately exciting, and there’s Ryohei whose appeal is developed over time.  They are opposites who happen to look alike, and their influence over Asako is some kind of test case about the laws of attraction.

So that all makes sense, but in the third act Baku will re-enter Asako’s life, and it always feels so detached from reality that I had a hard time deciphering whether this was indeed meant to be reality.  Then Asako says as much in a handful of overly-explanatory speeches in which she and other characters say exactly what’s on their mind.

It brings the potentially hypnotic rhythm to a screeching halt, like we’re suddenly watching the filmed version of a rough draft of the script.  That it’s so unbelievable doesn’t help, but you could easily argue that it’s supposed to feel as unbelievable as it is.  It’s dreamlike, then again she tells us as much.

It felt to me like the film could come up with a more plausible reintroduction of Baku into this story.  Should he really be as famous as we’re told, then Asako wouldn’t have been able to avoid seeing his face everywhere.  Ryohei even lets her know that he figured out who he was two years previous after friends pointed out the resemblance.

So I’m not sure what it is exactly that I’m nitpicking, but the third act of the film just felt out of step with itself, what it was beforehand.  It’s simplistic and sudden, but again that’s the point, that these feelings she harbors for Baku lie dormant within her.  I suppose the part I had the hardest time with was watching her explain to Baku why she can’t run away with him.  We understand already that she has misgivings about leaving her fiancé, but then she has to explain it to Baku, and his response is to shrug and literally say “bye bye.”

There’s also an incessant use of music, specifically one track that felt like screeching subway rails every time I heard it.  The first time it’s used, actually, is weirdly effective because it’s used to heightened a moment of attraction and it feels a little self-aware, parodying these moments of strong attraction in movies.  But then it keeps recurring, mostly in the second half of the film and then the self-awareness erodes away.  Instead it feels corny and manipulative, all the more so because so much of the film, the more self-assured moments, do away with music entirely.  The film is at its best when we’re in a wide shot, there is no music, and we just watch characters behave.

My frustration with the film has to do in part with all the things it does so well.  It’s a fascinating character study for long stretches of the film, but it just happens to give way to a sudden character decision based on an unbelievable intrusion into her life (that in someway strips dramatic value from her subsequent response) and clunky moments of exposition.  The film then ends with a moment of intended, though murky catharsis, open-ended and poetic, but because the rift between the young couple is so simplistic and melodramatic, then the reunion holds none of the supposed weight.

Up Next: Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), The Last Metro (1980), Close-Up (1990)

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