For Rei (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

Stories of the effects of family breakups on children are hardly new to Japanese cinema with filmmakers like Hirokazu Koreeda and Shinji Somai using it in films such as I Wish (2011) and Moving (1993) respectively. Being unique in this field is difficult, but through nuanced filmmaking, director Yukari Sakamoto creates an intimate, challenging and original portrait of a modern young woman who, on the path to self-actualization, tries to pull herself free from the lingering trauma of her parent’s split.

The titular Rei (An Ogawa) is a university student who lives a peaceful life with her boyfriend Nakamura (Amon Hirai) but beneath her quiet exterior is a girl struggling to become a woman. She is at the most turbulent age in self-actualizing a personality but before that can happen she faces the challenge of cauterizing the wound of her parent’s divorce and her father’s absence. This caused a rupture in her sense of self which she seeks to heal by studying philosophy at university. By wrestling with this complicated subject she seeks to clarify and set to rest her emotions. However, as she studies, the desire to meet her absent father (Seiji Kinoshita), who she hasn’t seen since she was a little child, soon seems like a viable avenue of understanding. Her mother suggests it is a bad idea but Rei figures it is her chance to put to rest nagging doubts about herself and test the boundaries of womanhood.

The feeling to connect with her father may be a gnawing desire to understand who she is in relation to the parent that wasn’t there but it isn’t guaranteed to bring a clean sense of purpose or simple answers. This is a tricky subject to pull off but Sakamoto explores it in a way that conveys this sensation from Rei’s perspective. The film opens and is punctuated with Rei’s academic work, a treatise about perspective that serves to indicate the issues eating away at her that also serves to structure some of her emotional journey as she wrestles with the concept of being perceived and perceiving others at a time when she contacts her father. Intercut with this are dreams, conversations, and memories about him, such as a picture drawn in crayon by herself as a child. These moments provide context and emotional shading. By making Rei work through her ideas out loud while she meets her father, Sakamoto allows the audience to understand the slow journey to independence Rei is undergoing.

Leading us along this path are other directorial choices that firmly root us in Rei’s perspective making this film a deeper subjective analysis of one young woman’s attempts to parse her feelings. The camera sometimes adopts Rei’s point of view, while the editing takes us around the different layers of thoughts flying around her head, and the audio track reflects what she hears. The most striking moment occurs with the use of the Erik Satie piece ‘Gymnopedie No. 3’ which indicates the fantasy of maturity she hopes to convey at the restaurant meeting with her father. It cuts out as he pulls her back to reality and lets her know his perspective doesn’t solely rest on her.

Even with the film being so personal, it is unsentimental in its depiction of Rei’s travails and this may prove difficult to enter for some audience members. As a character, Rei feels trapped in passivity and being naturally introverted she lacks the confidence to exhibit the anger or grief that we may see in similarly themed dramas. She is working through complicated emotions that require time and understanding, and Sakamoto’s direction allows the audience to experience this.

The film comes to rest on a feeling of ambivalence as Rei comes to realize there is no clean answer and she has to forge her own identity, a recognizable hallmark of maturing. The intelligent intercutting of philosophy with family drama ensures the audience understands Rei’s journey to this understanding and how the passionate fantasy of her attempt to reconnect with her father doesn’t match the reality. In capturing such complicated feelings, film is honest, engaging and, most of all, unique as it presents a modern girl grappling with contradictory emotions engendered by reality. Smart design choices ensure that the raw emotions are pointedly felt, making For Rei a singular experience.

For Rei was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10.