Sunada (Kaho) is a director of television commercials – just past thirty-years-old, drinking a little too much, and hiding an unenthused lover from a happy but sexless husband. Once the pressures of a sexist industry and celebrity egos grow too much for her, Sunada’s best friend Kiyoura (Shim Eun-kyung) drags her on a road trip to rural Ibaraki to meet Sunada’s parents and reunite with her ailing grandmother.
Writer/director Yuko Hakota makes a
confident debut with this comedy-drama in which a woman resents having to grow
up but hides from her childhood at the same time. It is an easily relatable,
small-scale work: high on charm, and trading fluidly between moments of strong
comedy and soft melancholy. As a feature director, Yuko comes out of the gate,
so to speak, with an astounding level of patience. There is no urge to impress
or over-loading of technique or pace, as might be demonstrated by another debut
filmmaker. Instead, there is simply an immediate trust in the audience to
engage and follow the characters.
There is much in Sunada’s life to which
the audience will likely relate. She is dissatisfied with her job and the
sexist powerbrokers that keep her from advancing. Her marriage has trailed
downhill into a sexless routine, and an ill-conceived affair has delivered
disappointment. She fixates on getting older, as most 30-year-olds do. Even
when dragged to visit her elderly grandmother – who has just recovered from a
serious illness – it is with reluctance and no small amount of regret.
Kaho plays Sunada very well. It is a
nuanced take on a largely inactive role: things happen to Sunada, rather than
Sunada bringing events into fruition herself. She reacts but does not
instigate. It is a difficult role to make engaging, and Kaho succeeds
wonderfully. Her rapport with the more energetic and whimsical Kiyoura is naturally
charming and this interplay between Shim and Kaho is one of the film’s
strongest elements. For her own part, Shim brings a huge amount of energy to
the more manic and playful Kiyoura, generating many of the best comic moments.
There is a somewhat quirky edge to the
film. The music, while sparsely used, has a self-conscious sense of absurdity
to it. There is an odd and slightly distracting use of non-diegetic sound
effects from time to time. It is a striking technique because the characters
within this slightly exaggerated environment are carefully underplayed. The
restrained performances allow the more eccentric characters to flourish in a
pleasing rather than jarring manner. Sunada’s brother is justunsettling enough to succeed on screen
with his inappropriate jokes just skimming the surface of discomfort rather
than diving in. Her father’s newfound obsession with samurai weapons and armour
is again written precisely on a line between reality and absurdity.
There are some real highlights here. A
quiet scene between Sunada and her bed-ridden grandmother abandons the humour
to present a simple, emotive drama between two women. A night out to a local
bar delivers well in both genres, emphasizing the difference between Sunada’s
Tokyo home and her parents’ more rural environment. Yuko directs the film with
a very strong sense of place, and Ryuto Kondo’s photography goes for
matter-of-fact visuals rather than any sort of artful pretention. The famous
‘blue hour’, between night and dawn, plays out primarily in flashback –
pointing to a hopefulness the young Sunada had that she cannot quite tap into
any more. Underlying the jokes and gags is a deep pessimism about growing older
as a woman in Japan.
narrative turn in the film’s final moments throws much of the film’s events
into disarray, leaving things on a slightly muddled note. In a way, it demands
the viewer watch Blue Hour for a
second time, simply to decipher the last two minutes. It does feel misjudged,
but at the same time does not feel entirely out of place. Overall it is a deliberately
low-key work, and succeeds all the more effectively because of it. It is keenly
observed, beautifully presented, and effectively played. This is warm,
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.