Bad Poetry Tokyo (Japan, 2017) [OAFF 2018]
Fake it till you make it. It’s a useful mantra to live by. Appear confident and people will accept it. We all do it, but every once in a while the mask will slip. What happens when you simply run out of energy to hold that mask up?
Jun Fujita (Shuna Iijima) is 30 years old. She majored in English at Tokyo University and dreams of appearing in Hollywood movies. For the time being, though, she works as a hostess at a shady club where her boyfriend Taka (Orson Mochizuki) is employed as a barman. Life hasn’t turned out the way Jun imagined when she fled her home in Nagano Prefecture five years ago. Still, she yearns to be an actress and is about to make it when betrayed by her lover. Broken and made savage by the experience, she heads back to her sleepy countryside hometown to lick her wounds. As far as she can tell, things seemingly haven’t changed much when she first arrives and is reunited with her father (Takashi Kawaguchi), which is a problem because there are ugly secrets about her past that made her flee in the first place.
The drama of Bad Poetry Tokyo opens with a sequence showing Jun perpetrating a violent attack while her narration tells us some of what has driven her to this point. It then cuts back to an earlier period of time so viewers can trace the sequence of events that has to the moment that the weight of the world has become too heavy for Jun to bear.
Whether it is in the harsh and noisy urban landscape of Tokyo, where the most noticeable landmarks are the Tokyo SkyTree and Shibuya Scramble, or the pastoral setting of Nagano where people party on river embankments and work the fields, Jun is usually the centre of the frame as the object of attention. She remains magnetic regardless of the emotional intensity of the scenes and even as the cast broadens out with the transition to Nagano where a coterie of characters from Jun’s past appear to offer respite and an impression of her in more innocent times, we are aware of her powerful presence. As she heads back to her hometown, she visibly bears the scars of her shameful retreat with a little embarrassment but without fear. She is strong.
Iijima often bravely allows her body to form the center of a scene and while there is some nudity, this and the pain she suffers is never fetishized because the film explores the effects the pain has on her psyche and the responses people have to her changes as she loses her cool and becomes more extreme.
The camera unemotionally and unflinchingly shows Jun’s scars and observes her actions. Director Anshul Chauhan knows how to frame scenes perfectly and when to cut to a different shot or sequence. It is a lingering camera only for dramatic purposes so we catch some fantastic acting from the cast, especially Iijima, as she communicates Jun’s darkness and depth through her physicality. These are emotional spikes that grab the heart of the viewer. The most delicious scenes are the restrained ones when we can see the calculations she makes to beat her opposition, the shifting of her eyes, a raised eyebrow, a rueful smile, or an, “Oh really?” when negotiations don’t go her way. While she is a victim, she is also a survivor and desperate enough to use her body in various ways to escape her troubles. Until that is it maybe becomes all too much to bear and her will to live turns self-destructive.
The script doesn’t over elaborate over what occurred to make her this way. Instead, it’s all subtly told in the acting and snatches of dialogue – the way Jun shrinks away from certain men and regards them with disgust, how she is aggressively handled like a piece of meat by people in the club and back home, the shadow of someone on the frosted window of a bathroom door, and the shameful verbal treatment from the men in her life.
The emotional tone here is is reminiscent of Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There (2014), similarly grim if not quite as heavy. Events proceed with mounting dread but there’s always Iijima’s performance, which is light at times, and imbued with the constant need to move and survive. It’s this pulsating energy that keeps the film flowing smoothly. We see her will to survive. We want her to survive. When we get to the attack that starts the film, we’re willing to forgive after seeing all of the indignities she has suffered. She is a force of will steaming forward, even if one can sense that she might be derailed somewhere down the line.
Bad Poetry Tokyo is a quietly devastating exploration of how abuse can crack a person, fronted by a fierce and magnetic performance from Iijima. It ends on a beautiful note and showcases a new set of talents on the Japanese film scene.
Bad Poetry Tokyo was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 13 and 17.