All the Things We Never Said (Japan, 2020) [SDAFF 2020]

In 2019, the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures launched a pan-Asian project called B2B A Love Supreme wherein six Asian auteurs were tasked with going back to basics and making features on a limited budget of approximately US$145,000. The filmmakers selected included Tsai Ming-liang from Taiwan, Chinese-Korean Zhang Lu and Japanese director Yuya Ishii who contributed All the Things We Never Said.

The title for Ishii’s story proves to be apt as his film finds its dramatic fluctuations based on a cycle of escalating tragedies derived from various character’s inability to communicate what they truly feel to others. The opening is anything but grim. Boundless optimism radiates from the screen as we gaze upon three high schoolers, two guitar-wielding boys and a girl, who amble along an open road on a balmy summer’s day. An upbeat song provides the perfect accompaniment to these sun-kissed scenes that are familiar from countless seishun eiga and sappy romances. These are hopeful kids however, amidst all of their joy, seeds of disharmony are sown as they are caught in an unspoken love triangle that will have consequences well into adulthood. 

When we next meet them they are still together but in their 30s. Two of the three, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) and Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), have married and had a daughter, Suzu, while their mutual friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) is on the periphery working as a repairman. It is clear that they have discarded any dreams of musical stardom and the drudge of domesticity has ground them down. This is especially the case with Natsumi who has gone sour, as revealed by her alternately waspish or distant attitude and her barely concealed contempt for a husband who quietly absorbs her negativity and seems unable to show emotion. 

The breaking point for the trio comes quickly in the narrative when Atsuhisa leaves his clerical job early after feeling sick and stumbles home to find his wife with another man. Natsumi justifies this as the result of years of frustrations she has silently endured, especially Atsuhisa’s inability to declare his love for her. Implicit in her words is an ultimatum demanding that her husband say something or lose her but he cannot. They divorce and throughout their separation Atsuhisa holds his tongue, swallows his pride and meekly accepts Natsumi’s requests and we in the audience wonder why, as does Natsumi and also Takeda who finds himself caught between the two as he watches the marriage fall apart. Atsuhisa’s silence on the situation and whether he loves Natsumi or not propels the narrative as it drives her further from away from him and also affects others who try to reconfigure their relationships with the couple while also struggling to express themselves.

Flashbacks shown piecemeal throughout the conflict give context and believably show many layers of people trying to communicate and failing. The problem is that to express love or any extreme emotions in a Japanese context is not so easy in reality and eventually we see this dynamic creates a chain of misfortune that stretches out from that scenic summer day seen at the start of the film until it encompasses instances of betrayal, mental health breakdown, and death further in the narrative. Crucially, it rings true in showing how people become alienated and how it can be difficult to communicate. 

As dramatic as things get, it never feels contrived because these characters feel like real people in real situations. Helping this sense is the down-to-earth milieu which are the suburbs of Yokohama, quiet suburban streets and old-fashioned houses in the countryside where ageing opinionated family members reside, and the glitz and seediness of Kabukicho. All provide distinctly different but atmospheric tones that help characterization. A good example is Atsuhisa and Natsumi’s cluttered and cramped home which we visit at the height of summer. It’s a season that adds to the sense of pent up frustration especially as the film depicts the sort of lower-middle class way of living where families are struggling to get by financially. As such, we sympathize with Natsumi, played with maturity and nuance by Yuko Oshima, as we experience her family’s lack of social mobility, the stress from a lack of money, and overbearing relatives. 

While his character’s reasoning and behavior might seem off to some audience members, Nakano gives a very moving performance of a man weighted down by guilt and unable to fully verbalize the myriad of emotions he feels, especially in a Japanese context. His tremulous body language speaks of someone who aches with shame, cowardice and self-censorship. His performance generates a force on screen that, when he lets his emotions out, hits hard like a freight train. Even if I could guess where the film was going, it drew tears from this reviewer as I watched his plight. That, coupled with Wakaba’s portrayal of a loyal friend who tries his hardest to offer a steady hand, leads to an ending which will also have viewers welling up. It will remind them to say what is in your heart, especially when it comes to loved ones.

Taking all of this into account, Ishii has successfully accomplished a back to basics story all about love.

All the Things We Never Said is streaming as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which runs from October 23-31.