Kyoto Story -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- "Kyoto Story" is something of an experiment. Part of a program designed to foster young talent, veteran director Yamada Yoji ("The Hidden Blade") co-directs with his former protege Abe Tsutomu on a traditional love story with a triangle at the center. The only element that sets the film apart from a legion of films like it is its location: the Uzumasa Daiei street arcade, once home to the defunct Daiei Studio ("Rashomon" was among the films shot there).

Yamada's name above the title alone should spark festival interest and possibly an art house release in urban markets outside of Japan. The film is too low key, however, to travel much beyond that limited scope, though it's unlikely it was intended to. "Kyoto Story" is an intensely intimate love letter to the city.

Kyoko (Ebise Hana) is a librarian that finds herself torn between two men: the local tofu-maker's son who harbors aspirations of stand up comedy greatness and a visiting academic that frequents the university library she works in. While Kyoko struggles to make some life decisions, she reflects on her place, her heritage and her duty to community around Daiei that has all but defined her.

There's not much going on in "Kyoto Story," and its romantic entanglements are far from innovative. That said, Yamada and Abe's modest picture doesn't have ambitions of making bold statements about the nature of love and the meaning of life. The strongest parts of "Kyoto Story" are its quiet moments with the neighborhood going about its daily business and the subtle references to a much grander past. Interviews with actual area residents lend a palpable nostalgic tone -- and veracity -- that bleeds through every frame. You don't have to be familiar with Kyoto to get swept up in the melancholy reflection on a bygone time and place.

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That old-fashioned sweet touch comes courtesy of Yamada, and it provides the basis of a demonstrable contrast between past and present. Pop star USA is the untalented comedian symbolic of the reasons the old Daiei days are quickly being forgotten. He has desires on getting out of Uzumasa where Kyoko, who actually gets an opportunity to do so, isn't so sure.

Neither USA nor Ebise turns in award-winning performances, but they do pull off the kind of humility the story demands. "Kyoto Story" has moments where the characters test one's patience and it's a touch creaky technically, but the glimpse into a bit of Japan's living history goes a fair way to making up for whatever minor flaws the film may have.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival Filmart/Master Class
Sales: Shochiku Co., Ltd.
Production company: Shochiku Co., Ltd.
Cast: Ebise Hana, USA, Tanaka Sotaro
Director: Abe Tsutomu, Yamada Yoji
Screenwriter: Yamada Yoji, Sasae Tomoaki
Producer: Yamamoto Ichiro
Director of Photography: Chikamori Masashi
Production Designer: Nishimura Takashi
Music: Fuuki Harumi
Editor: Ishijima Kazuhide
No rating, 89 minutes
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