A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is one of three films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival directed by Shunji Iwai who will be present at the screening to pick up a lifetime achievement award. It is a well-earned accolade considering he enjoys a respected international reputation built on a career defined by constant change as he flits between genres, jobs and mediums as demonstrated by his novels, acting, manga, music, and many films. Iwai’s works tend to appeal to women thanks to his preference of having women in lead roles and his stories analysing female characters through slowly and sensitively shared scenes that describe contemporary life.
His latest film centres on Nanami (Haru Kuroki), who works as a part-time junior high school teacher and as a convenience store cashier. She drifts through an apathetic life, mercilessly teased by her students because of her quiet voice and timid ways. The film opens with long sequences in which viewers are given demonstrations of how much of an awkward loner Nanami is where she stands alone in a crowd and avoids looking directly at people. Kuroki plays her as a non-presence dominated by others and her surroundings, a blank space too nervous to leave a mark in a colourful world of swirling energy, a little too anonymous at times but never unbelievably so.
Despite being a teacher Nanami has not learned how to interact with others or understand herself. In a commentary on contemporary life and love she is far more comfortable talking to students online and she enthusiastically connects with others on a social network named “Planet” which is where she lets loose her innermost thoughts and passion as shown by on-screen text. It is in cyberspace she makes a connection with a man named Tetsuya (Go Jibiki). He’s another teacher. He’s also a total mommy’s boy but takes the lead in the relationship, offering her hope of escaping her uncertain life by proposing they get married. Nanami agrees despite feeling little for Tetsuya, which she tells folks online.
Those words come back to haunt her as the wedding approaches and Tetsuya reads them. His suspicion is piqued but Nanami’s family situation poses a bigger problem; her parents are divorced and she has no close relatives. She can get her parents to pretend to be married but her more traditional and classier prospective in-laws were not thrilled with a girl found online and they aren’t going to be impressed at the family discord she brings. Nanami turns to an online-friend on Planet and gets in contact with Amuro (Gou Ayano), a man who describes himself as a jack of all trades but can best be described as an actor/agent who regularly hires actors to play people’s friends and family in a variety of social situations.
As played by Ayano, Amuro is perfect and somewhat comedic. Handsome, well-groomed, intelligent, and focussed, he takes charge of Nanami’s situation and provides her with a sham family to get her through the wedding while dashing around with breathless grace and wit. This lie is the basis of a marriage that won’t last because Nanami soon begins to suspect that Tetsuya is as false as the people she hired from Amuro and that her new husband is cheating on her. She hires Amuro to find out if her man is loyal but things get a lot more complicated when Tetsuya’s mother confronts Nanami with allegations of her lying and cheating.
That apathetic trait of Nanami’s comes to the fore as she fails to defend herself against a ferocious bout of brow-beating from a fearsome self-righteous mother-in-law who wants to protect her son. Nanami knows that she is caught in a series of lies but cannot generate the will to fight back and she is forced to flee her home. As Nanami is emotionally shaken up (somewhat unsubtly shown in a drawn out sequence where a handheld camera hovers around Haru Kuroki as she shambles along the backstreets of Tokyo) she calls the one person who has been genuine most recently, Amuro, and he takes her into his care and offers her a job as an actor but is he genuine?
Audiences will be constantly re-assessing things, perhaps more so than Nanami herself since the film splits from her perspective briefly at a crucial juncture and so viewers are given a wider view of the world and his actions. This uncertainty taints the film and adds more of a dramatic impetus which is a relief after watching Nanami’s inner ocean of apathy and so as she begins to get sucked into life as an actor we watch intently for signs of danger but what occurs is far more different and surprisingly it is highly effective. Instead of a threat we see the first real friendship Nanami makes in the film with a fellow actor named Mashiro (Cocco).
At this stage the film has reached the end of its first half and while the dramatic stakes rise the pace remains slow which may put off viewers as scenes feel overly long and sequences overdone but stick with it because Iwai is painting a rich tapestry of modern love and friendship as you begin to get invested in the story. Patience sounds vital here but enjoyment can be derived just by being sucked into the story or by analysing it while watching languorous shots and extended sequences to pick out details in the set and behaviour that defines characters.
The moral complexity of the film rockets up yet again as Mashiro brings a different energy to the story, an intimate and physical but unstable energy that hints at a gaping hole in her heart that threatens to suck others in. It is an engine that gives life to the film compared to the absence that is Nanami and the pristine surface that is Amuro. This constant pull that Mashiro presents helps Nanami develop a character as she stops being naïve and existing in herself and starts to consider her relationship with the people around her. Traits such as caring for others and being a level-headed and mature person arise organically from the encounters the two women have as a genuine friendship develops and the film begins to feel more substantial and engaging.
The lackadaisical life that Nanami leads may not be gripping at first but the subtly told journey to friendship and self-actualisation grows from such an unpromising start and gains a sense of significance as we get more involved with the characters on such a deep level. The twists and emotional crescendos gain a lot of emotional heft in the final few sequences proving that the film’s measured pace and gently sketched characters have been delivered almost perfectly through carefully calibrated acting, a focussed script, and beautifully framed shots which are a joy to watch. As usual with Iwai’s films, there is an exquisite sensitivity on display and a lot to learn about human nature.
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Friday June 24 at 6:15pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Shunji Iwai will be the recipient of the NYAFF Lifetime Achievement award at this year’s festival. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.