(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz)
Coping is an often unrealized way of connecting with our peers. When we need them the most, we tend to push them away. Koki Fukada’s Love Life eloquently captures this idea amidst a meditative urban Japanese landscape. Bestowing a whiplash of trauma upon characters and audiences alike, Fukada allows his humane story to simmer before gently stirring the pot, as we watch a series of vulnerable, yet enlightening encounters unfold in the wake of grief.
Meet Taeko (Fumino Kimura), a young social worker and hard-working mother of Keita (Tetta Shimada), a six year old boy with an impressive level of intelligence and maturity that win anyone over. Jiro (Kento Nagayama), Taeko’s stiff husband who struggles to make eye contact, arrives home to help Taeko cook dinner and arrange party decorations in their small, homey apartment. What appears to be a celebration for Keita’s Othello championship doubles as a party for Jiro’s father’s 65th birthday. Despite his father’s brash comments against Taeko before the birthday surprise, the mildly disjointed family tries to continue on with the good times. But in the wake of attempted happiness, an unspeakable disaster strikes.
Complications float to the surface in the days following, forcing the family to rapidly adjust to little avail. Better late than never, Keita’s biological father, Park (Atom Sunada), storms into the picture after estranging himself from his family years ago, leaving him homeless. Slapping Taeko, beating himself up, and inappropriately dressed, he leaves the farthest thing from a good first impression. Following their ill-fated reunion, it turns out that Taeko is the only one that can help Park apply for social benefits due to a communication barrier. One can theorize that the stars align in this way for a more existential reason. The former lovers undergo an unexpectedly mutual healing process, while Taeko similarly faces his own past as he helps his parents to move to the countryside.
It is difficult to further elaborate without revealing more than the synopsis wants us to know. Rest assured, the trauma that unfolds is objectively heartbreaking, and reveals a brave maternal perspective rarely captured on film. The weight of this event inverses one’s first impression of what is to come, and subsequently, gives the performers a daunting task of depicting what few people are unlucky enough to experience. Roles that feel underperformed may not connect with audiences at first, but later feel justified and well-suited for Taeko’s stoic character. Thematically circling back to how grieving varies from person to person, I went from feeling critical of the casting choices, to fascinated by how well they synergized with the emotionally intelligent narrative. In retrospect, I would not change much about it, but I could not help but think that some of the cold performances struggled to mix with the story’s hot water.
Still, this will hit all the right notes for fans of directors like Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car). A similarly-inspired style of filmmaking and an intelligent use of the camera highly elevate the production. Long, unwavering shots are used to juxtapose what a fast-moving world we live in. A random thirty second scene of a character taking a bath suddenly becomes the most haunting, thanks to cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto intimately crafted visuals. Simple household objects, such as a CD and an unfinished Othello game, are framed with an impressive amount of impact, as if they are their own characters. During quieter moments, we are asked to ponder on such minute details surrounding Taeko, Jiro and Park’s already complex worlds, as their past begins to catch up with them in a tangled web of family dysfunction.
At the end of the day, a single shared experience is the glue that ties everything together, acting as a medium of understanding when our characters ask themselves what’s next. The further into the runtime, the more one realizes that the answer, like most hardships, is not as simple as it seems. We are given brief glimpses of what that might mean for each character, as they repel and attract from each other like sine waves. Had we been given more insight into Taeko and Park’s backstories, more weight could have been added to their problematic relationship which felt quite undermined. Regardless, lingering disputes and ambiguous feelings between characters will keep viewers second guessing their fates until the last few minutes. A fitting reflection on how complicated love is, and a testament to the simple choice of title, shared with a composition by 90s artist Akiko Yano that is included in the soundtrack. Impressively driving its introspective conclusion home with luscious melodies and swelling vocals, it wraps everything up in a poetic bowtie.
A uniquely stoic melodrama, Love Life can be seen as a mini masterpiece. One will find themselves emotionally rewarded when they allow themselves to believe in and sympathize with its enticing cast. I also praise its rewatch value, thanks to its well informed dialogue based on deep family history, which is only revealed after many dots are connected. At the end of the day, one will be left with a gregarious guide on how we navigate life’s tallest barriers… and a traumatic attachment to Othello.
Set the rose tinted lenses aside and see Love Life when it hits digital platforms on November 6.