Toad's Oil -- Film Review

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BUSAN, South Korea -- Had "Toad's Oil" not been the directorial debut of venerated actor Koji Yakusho ("Shall We Dance?"), would people have time for this ponderous, ham-handed tale of a financial shark's mid-life epiphany? The prestige of Yakusho is a ticket to most festivals, including Toronto where it premiered internationally. Nevertheless, the 131-minute running time is overlong even for art house regulars.

Takuro Yazawa (Yakusho) is an egocentric high-rolling trader who allows online stock updates and mobile bleeps to run his life. All of that changes when his son Takuya (Eita) has an accident on his way to bring home childhood buddy Saburo (Junichi Sawayashiki) from reform school. While Takuya lies in a coma, Yazawa drifts into a flirty mobile exchange with his son's girlfriend Hikari (Fumi Nikaido).

Yazawa's arrested development, in contrast to Takuya's maturity and good nature, is overtly expressed through his infatuation with guns, bullish-to-bearish mood swings and delight in stringing Hikari along with his charade of being Takuya. At least, these shenanigans keep the script buoyant in the first 40 minutes before sounding a heavier note.

The second half of "Toad's Oil" turns into a road movie in which Yazawa and Saburo go off on a road trip in a camper. The journey moves at a trudging pace, and is stuffed with platitudinal wisdom, corny dream visions and improbabilities, being chased up a tree by a bear being one.

Intermittent flashbacks to Yazawa's life-affirming encounter with an itinerant peddler of toad's oil and his wife further break the narrative rhythm. These stabs at magic realism are a confusing, roundabout way of disclosing the title's theme of facing up to one's defects.

Yakusho eats up the screen, which is a treat when he delivers his usual calibrated acting. However, he too often runs amok with overcharged emotions and verbose dialogue, leaving little room for other roles (especially Eita's) to breathe.

Production values are high, but stylistic quirks like use of split screens during phone calls and Medieval/early Renaissance music both feel anachronistic.

Venue: Pusan International Film Festival -- A Window on Asian Cinema
Production: Pyramid Film Production
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Eita, Fumi Nikaido, Junichi Sawayashiki, Satomi Kobayashi

Director: Koji Yakusho
Screenwriter: Urara
Original story by: Koji Yakusho, Hideko Nakata.
Producers: Keisuke Konishi, Masahiro Harada
Director of photography: Toyomichi Kurita
Production designer: Hisao Inagaki
Music: Tablatura
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Editor: Soichi Ueno
Sales: Phantom Film Co Ltd.
No rating, 131 minutes
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