Slowly (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2019]

Momoko Fukuda is a director from Ibaraki City, Osaka Prefecture. She studied at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image and her graduation work Goodbye Mother (2014) was selected for big festivals such as the Yubari. In 2015 she took part in the NDJC: Young Filmmaker Development Project, a hotbed for young directors to grow in terms of their skills, and she made Dad’s Marriage (2016), a story where a make-up artist returns home on the occasion of her mother’s memorial to discover her father (played by actor and comedian Itsuji Itao) wants to become the bride of a local handyman. This was screened at international festivals and she is currently turning it into a feature. Recently she was tapped to create a short for the high-profile female led omnibus film 21st Century Girl (2018) and she appeared at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019 with the world premiere of her film Slowly, a short drama which defies conventional narrative formula and creates a unique space to examine the human condition.

The plot, simple as it is, involves a well-dressed couple, Yoko (Ai Bitou) and Kotaro (Jyonmyon Pe), driving through the back roads of a small town and stopping when they find their path is blocked by a tennis umpire’s chair. After shifting it to the side and clearing the way, a man named Igarashi (Takeshi Donguri) dashes into their lives and asks for their assistance in getting the chair back to the tennis centre it came from.

How it got there and why is not explained. We are treated to the absurd sight of this well-dressed couple lugging the chair through fields and past suburban stores caught in long-shots that absorb the characters in their environment. This seemingly simple performance provides a stage for the characters to talk and their backstories gradually add depth to the film. This is Yoko and Kotaro’s home town and they have just attended their high school reunion, Yoko lives in America, Kotaro is a teacher and Igarashi used to be his student, they are caught in the flow of time with uncertainty gripping them as they get absorbed in the comfort of reminiscing in memories.

This becomes Beckettian as, beneath the absurd situation, the human propensity to worry and question our present in the face of an unknowable future eats away at Yoko and Kotaro.

The underlying subtext of change and emotional connections are teased out through dialogue and body-language which perfect camera movement and blocking relays to the screen. Symmetry places actors in certain positions and Yoko is often at the apex of the scene thanks to the use of low-angle shots or placing her on the umpire’s chair which makes her emotions the more prominent and we watch her longing in her gaze and how she refuses to talk about the future. She looks at Kotaro with a certain softness. He fishes for emotional responses about their past. There was a deeper connection between the two at one point in their shared history. Meanwhile, when that isn’t happening, the two men are at the bottom often providing some comedy with facial expressions and absurd statements.

At times, the film becomes surreal with certain sequences such as when they find a love hotel and Igarashi is transported from mundane small-town Japan to a fight on the battlefield of love. The tennis court is where everything comes to a boil as they talk and play, and these are long rallies that must surely have been hard to film. Both Kotaro and Yoko appear to share the desire to slow down time and enjoy this moment together before the stream of time washes them further forward and towards the end of the film there is a glorious slow dolly around them as they make a fateful decision to face the future sincerely instead of wallowing in the past.

This road trip takes a detour into the melancholy territory of a past that has slipped by and uncertainty over the future but it is told with none of the obvious signals or words to indicate feelings between people. The setting, the slow-drip of information, and the simplicity allows the audience to slowly fill in the details. Life has gone fast for the characters and they delay it by carrying the chair, engaging in tennis and talking but at some point the game has to come to an end. One can sense that neither wants to leave the other but also remaining together is not an option in their current state and their final act is a resolute and brave one.

Slowly was shown on March 10 and 11 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.