'Summer Lights': Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Akane Tatsukawa in 'Summer Lights'
A haunting Hiroshima fable.

Hiroti Ogi and Akane Tatsukawa star in Jean-Gabriel Periot's debut fictional feature, a French production competing for the $56,000 New Directors prize at the Spanish festival.

A delicate treatment of one of the most crushingly tragic episodes in human history, Summer Lights (Lumieres d'ete) sees French writer-director Jean-Gabriel Periot make a belated, assured transition to fictional features. Much more conventional than his award-winning shorts and last year's hard-hitting found-footage documentary A German Youth, it follows the wanderings of a Paris-based filmmaker and a mercurial young woman around Hiroshima, 70 years after the coastal city suffered the world's first nuclear-weapon attack. The gently metaphysical romance premiered in the New Directors competition at San Sebastian, first stop in what is likely to be a busy round of festival bookings. Theatrical prospects outside Japan and France look marginal at best, however, for a picture which is perhaps a touch too tastefully restrained and small-scale for current art house palates.    

The only hint of Periot's relatively radical previous filmography comes at the very start: an audaciously sustained 20-minute pre-credits sequence in which thirtyish Akihiro (Hiroto Ogi) interviews octogenarian Mrs. Takeda (Mamako Yoneyama) about her memories of the apocalyptic events of Aug. 6, 1945. The bulk of this section comprises a talking-head monologue by Takeda in which she quietly recounts how the assault devastated her family. The victims included her older sister Michiko, a nurse who survived the initial blast seemingly unscathed, but died soon after from the hideous ailment known in Hiroshima as "the bomb disease." 

Shaken by what he has heard, Akihiro repairs to the nearby Peace Memorial Park where he strikes up a conversation with a chatty, spirited young woman (Akane Tatsukawa) dressed in outmoded, traditional attire. That the pair don't ask each other their names until much later — indeed, after they have gone on a long walk together followed by an impulsive train-journey to the seaside — may strike some viewers as odd. And by the time the lass's moniker is finally revealed, half an hour before the credits roll, numerous clues have hinted her identity — none of them picked up on by our globetrotting but seemingly dense-as-noodles protagonist Akihiro.

This implausibility is easy to overlook, however, so charming is the easygoing chemistry between the leads — and so wonderful is Tatsukawa at incarnating an irresistibly appealing character whose initial effervescence gradually yields unexpected layers of complexity and melancholy. She's the heart and soul of a film whose visuals, courtesy of Denis Gravouil's cinematography, work best as a widescreen showcase for her fresh-faced beauty. Sustaining a wistful mood occasionally underlined by Xavier Thibault's strings-heavy score, Summer Lights amply transcends the blandness of its title — a subtly poetic reference to the blinding flash when the A-bomb exploded. And it serves as a timely reminder of an enduringly divisive horror which, outside Japan at least, too seldom receives the attention it deserves.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors)
Production company: Local Films

Cast: Hiroto Ogi, Akane Tatsukawa, Yuzu Horie, Keiji Izumi, Mamako Yoneyama
Director-editor: Jean-Gabriel Periot
Screenwriters: Yoko Harono, Jean-Gabriel Periot
Producer: Nicolas Breviere
Cinematographer: Denis Gravouil
Composer: Xavier Thibault
Sales: MPM, Paris (rmonastier@mpmfilm.com)

In Japanese

Not rated, 82 minutes

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