Jeux de plage (Japan/Thailand/Malaysia/South Korea, 2019) [OAFF 2019]

Following her directorial debut, “Spring-ing”, an entry in the omnibus film 21st Century Girl (2019), Aimi Natsuto graduates to features with Jeux de Plage, which received its world premiere in the Competition section of the 2019 edition of the Osaka Asian Film Festival. With her feature, Natsuto brings back two of the stars from her 21st Century Girl entry, Haruna Hori and Juri Fukushima. Having only read a synopsis, I cannot really comment on her earlier work but Jeux de Plage feels familiar, a Nouvelle Vague inspired comedy, which is par for the course for her collaborators here.

Natsuto’s past film experience comes, most notably, from collaborating with Kiki Sugino having acted alongside her in Chigasaki Story (2015) and worked as a script editor on Snow Woman (2017). Jeux de plage was produced under the auspices of Sugino’s production company, Wa Entertainment, and shares the outfit’s internationalism in terms of it being a co-production between Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Korea, having a somewhat international cast, and of course its reverence of French cinema. While watching the film, I was reminded of Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’ete (2013), also made by Wa Entertainment. However, I was much more entertained by Jeux de plage. While the two films share passions for various things Gallic, similar themes, a coastal setting and scripts with deconstructions of character and romance very reminiscent of Eric Rohmer’s oeuvre, Natsuto’s work is more focused and lively compared to the languid experience turned in by Fukada. 

“Men are nice to all women because sex is all they think of.” The Frenchness starts right off the bat with Claude Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 weaving its way over the speakers while the title Jeux de Plage pops up on screen. This is French for ‘seaside games’ and much of the music on the soundtrack lets us know this will be a playful affair.

Three college students, Sayaka (Haruna Hori), Yui (Juri Fukushima) and Yui’s best friend Momoko (Nanaho Otsuka), head to the seaside town of Shonan (in Natsuto’s home prefecture of Kanagawa) and stay in a large guest house which is where numerous romantic waifs and strays wash up. Being young and attractive, the three are the targets of interest from nearby guys. These include a weirdo film director (played by real-life auteur Edmund Yeo), a disgustingly selfish, disarmingly louche, and goofy guitarist named Akihiro (Shinsuke Kato) who tries to bed every girl in sight, a horny film professor (whose wife is played by Sugino in a cameo appearance) and Korean students Min Jun and the girl he is crushing on, Yona, who wants to visit colleges for her study abroad. More people show up and a lustful comedy of errors ensues. Sayaka gets tangled up in their lines when she simply wants to reel in Yui, her best friend and someone whom she has been in love for quite a while.

Who lusts after who and why all comes out in the wash along with a lot of lewdness and hypocrisy as we see this collection of characters all live in the same space for a short period of time but reveal plenty of irreverent sexual licentiousness, not least Akihhiro who brings much hilarity to proceedings thanks to his insensitivity and his evident delight in schadenfreude as various men around him run aground on the rocky shores of resistance and eventual hostility at male insistence that the women put out.

To keep order amongst so many characters, the film has them orbit around Sayaka and her friends. There’s a focus on Sayaka trying to define herself and her sexuality in the face of relentless male interest, little realising that while Yui may be game for some sort of romance, it will be with someone else. Thanks to Hori’s enjoyable performance we see the conflicts play out on the poor girl’s face as she struggles to control her emotions. It’s not easy being Sayaka who has one ordeal after another to deal with. And yet, for all the times she seems to be at the center of the narrative, we are bathed in the roiling emotions of those around her and how insensible they may be to reality because they drown in relationship troubles and lust. Unlike Au revoir l’ete, nobody puts on an intellectual facade. Indeed, people are often quite open about their desires in a refreshingly bracing way as romantic mishaps play out under the sun.

After watching this film, Natsuto strikes me as something of a cynic. Her script examines the foibles of human behaviour and finds everyone motivated by lust and jealousy, especially men. The girls explode with ribald humour and anger at the goofily lustful men as Natsuto trawls the earthy emotions of her characters for comedy of the awkward kind. There is a scrappiness to the proceedings as scenes abruptly transition between each other but everyone at the festival screening clearly enjoyed spending time being with these characters.

Jeux de plage was shown on March 14 and 17 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.