Bubble Fiction

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Hong Kong International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- With the advantage of hindsight, director Baba Yasuo returns to Japan's so-called lost decade of the 1990s with a time-traveling bubble comedy. Given the subject matter, the proceedings aren't nearly as caustic as viewers might expect. By the time things all but turn into a screwball family comedy, "Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust" shows that Japan might not be ready to deal with its economic demons yet.

The film has a good chance at strong domestic boxoffice if Japanese audiences are willing to revisit that era. For others, specific cultural references could hamper enjoyment. But like American cinema dealing with Vietnam or Northern Ireland with "the Troubles," general knowledge of the topic could lead to modest art house releases overseas.

In 2007, twentysomething Mayumi (Hirosue Ryoko) is mourning the loss of her inventor mother Mariko (Yakushimaru Hiroko), apparently by suicide. She's on the hook for her deadbeat boyfriend's ¥2 million debt. So debt collector Tajima (Gekidan Hitori) shows up at the funeral to help himself to the condolence money. Also attending is Mariko's old friend Shimokawaji (Abe Hiroshi), a civil servant at the Ministry of Finance.

Shimokawaji eventually contacts Mayumi and tells her that not only is her mother still alive, she's actually working for him -- albeit in 1990. Mariko managed to unlock the secret of time travel during her research, and because Japan is headed for bankruptcy, she goes back in time to prevent one horrible policy mistake from ever happening, thus correcting the present. With Mariko out of touch with the '07 team, Shimokawaji worries, so he sends the initially resistant Mayumi after her.

Mayumi climbs into the souped-up, front-loading washing machine and gets out in 1990, just as evil minister Serizawa (Ibu Masato) is about to announce the major initiative that will eventually cause the collapse of the Japanese economy. Cue the fish-out-of-water moments, run-ins with future stars (adult film star Iijima Ai has a cameo), two versions of her mother, some cheesy period pop music and a temporal conundrum.

Baba and writer Kimizuka Ryoichi aim to shine a light on excessive behavior and reckless fiscal policy -- both governmental and personal -- that led to one of the developed world's most miserable recessions. People literally are throwing money around because, as the early Shimokawaji tells Mayumi, everyone's got too much anyway. While Baba and Kimizuka's knife isn't as sharp as it could -- or should -- be, they do get in their digs. Characters repeatedly brush off Mayumi's dire warnings with a disbelieving "This is Japan," or "Banks don't fail," a possible reference to banking reformer Takenaka Heizo's inflammatory 2002 comment.

"Bubble Fiction" democratically spreads the responsibility around: Serizawa is conspiring with (gasp!) Americans who are laying in wait to snap up Japan's assets when things crash. But the film recalls "Trainspotting" in the way it presents its given vice. Good or bad, healthy or not, drugs and lavish spending are fun.

The film gets into narrative trouble with a predictable domestic side story that draws attention away from pre-Rainbow Bridge Tokyo when it becomes engrossed in Mariko and Mayumi's underwritten relationship.

Both leads are well-known TV stars: Hirosue shot to stardom after starring in the massively popular "Beach Boys" and later "Shotgun Wedding," while Abe has had his share of small-screen hits ("Trick") sprinkled in with his more indie film work ("Survive Style 5+").

Hirosue is still too girlish to be believable as a slightly jaded, willfully ignorant club hostess. She doesn't bring the kind of premature weariness the role requires. Abe, however, is a truly gifted comic actor who never strays into egregious physicality. His broadly played Shimokawaji is pitch-perfect in three different incarnations.

Stylistically, the film is more television than cinema. Photography and editing are workmanlike, and aside from a few too many late-'80s teased bangs, there isn't much for the art department to latch on to. "Bubble Fiction" does manage several chuckles but nothing cringe-inducing, which is what one hopes for from any look back at the bad old days.

BUBBLE FICTION: BOOM OR BUST
Hoichoi Prods., Fuji Television, Dentsu, Toho, Shogakukan
Credits:
Director: Baba Yasuo
Screenwriter: Kimizuka Ryoichi
Producer: Kameyama Chihiro
Director of photography: Matsushima Kosuke
Music: Honma Yusuke
Editor: Okuma Hiroshi
Cast:
Shimokawaji: Abe Hiroshi
Mayumi: Hirosue Ryoko
Mariko: Yakushimaru Hiroko
Tajima: Gekidan Hitori
Yuko: Fukiishi Kazue
Kaoru: Ito Yuko
Serizawa: Ibu Masato
Sugai: Ogi Shigemitsu.
Running time -- 112 minutes
No MPAA rating
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