Filled With Steam is one of the latest works by Rina Tanaka, an up-and-coming filmmaker with a Masters from Tokyo University of the Arts, Film & New Media’s Directing course who already has a feature film to her name and is developing a distinct style. With this short, audiences at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2018 got to taste her sensibility, which favours creating ambiguity through the use of clashing tones. Here we see quite a clash. Filled with Steam is a tale of love on life-support featuring a visceral undercurrent of tragedy masked by comedic elements that culminates in a powerful ending.
The narrative is split between a loosely knit group of characters, but the focus is on twenty-something Midoriko Ito (Ayako Mizuno), who works at a flower shop, and her husband Daisuke (Takehito Sato). They are a picture-perfect wedded pair but this couple live separate lives without realising it. Daisuke isn’t the salaryman he pretends to be. In fact, he works as a guy for hire doing odd jobs. Meanwhile Midoriko is visiting a dubious “pregnancy class” run by a charismatic high-energy teacher named Miho Jonouchi (Kaori Takeshita) without telling him. They are unable to talk to each other and their secrets risk unravelling the fraying bond their relationship has.
Why are they drifting apart? Their relationship is simply running out of steam.
She yearns for more and maybe sees pregnancy as a route to something greater while he is an affectless and amiable guy who seems to be unsure of things. These traits see him get dragged into ridiculous situations played for humour throughout the film. Laughs are also derived from the film’s forays into the classroom, scenes which are scored with playful music and swept along by the waves of confidence projected by the big performance from Takeshita as the teacher, but Tanaka always, effortlessly, has a hint of melancholy on the periphery of the comedy.
The comedy of the misunderstood and uncomfortable is entertaining enough as the laughter and drama run side-by-side but it soon becomes hard to pull apart the bitterly funny moments from the just plain bitter as the film plays out social faux pas to the point of humiliation late in the narrative. Fantastic camerawork and some excellent editing mercilessly capture the embarrassment felt by Midoriko and Daisuke in awkward situations, and the gradual realisation that their relationship isn’t all they had hoped for. Reaction shots for comedy turn to reaction shots for betrayal. A gag plays out but the observant camera lingers on horrified onlookers or an actor’s bod language to show the crushing weight of disappointment in their on-screen partner.
Tanaka shows a knack for working with actors as she gets strong performances from everyone. Mizuno’s performance is carefully calibrated to speak volumes about how little faith Midoriko has in her husband while Sato plays his character as genial to the point that he becomes a paper man. This couple are believably in a relationship lacking substance.
Most of the characters exhibit signs of existential angst and loneliness and the film plays into the notion of modern societies being peopled by rejected individuals putting up facades to cover their lack of connection. This idea is most powerfully felt in the central couple who engage in the kind of passionless surface conversations that develop when people are unable to really talk about what is on their mind for fear of offending one another.
Tanaka skilfully explores the uncomfortable reality of living with someone who isn’t there, someone who keeps up the pretence of happiness to maintain a fantasy that has no solid reality or any future. The jokes occur but it is the reaction of the people feeling the sting of a lie that takes the focus and there is an uneasy ambiguity here that will challenge the viewer. Seeing people disappointed because they realise their reality is just pure vapour is where the film is at its strongest. The final sequence, a series of vignettes of happier times for Midoriko and Daisuke is held together by match-cuts while a magnificent single-take is actually heartbreaking to the point that it’s worth watching over and over again to see the air clear and cold reality set in.
Filled with Steam received its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 16.