The vivid blossoms of springtime in Japan serve as a metaphor for the transient beauty of human existence in the unorthodox boxing drama In Full Bloom, which picked up two main prizes at the Oldenburg International Film Festival last month. A first-time feature by directing duo Adam VillaSenor and Reza Ghassemi, this spiritually minded period piece is a sensory feast of wintry wilderness landscapes, poetic visual motifs and nuggets of fortune-cookie philosophy, its ruminative style paying nakedly obvious homage to Texan auteur Terrence Malick at times. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that VillaSenor is currently developing an early Malick script, The English Speaker, as his next feature.
Of course, ravishing Malick-esque visuals cannot quite excuse muddled plotting, portentous dialogue and wobbly performances. But In Full Bloom is still an impressively polished debut feature, admirably ambitious and elegantly crafted. More festival bookings are likely to follow Oldenburg, with sufficiently cultish potential for niche theatrical play.
In Full Bloom takes place in Japan soon after World War II, when antagonism toward the occupying American powers is still widespread. An impending light heavyweight title fight between washed-up U.S. boxer Clint Sullivan (Tyler Wood) and defending Japanese champ Masahiro (Yusuke Ogasawara) is charged with extra geopolitical friction as prickly references to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima hang in the air. Adding to this tension, Clint’s silver-tongued slimeball manager Silas (S. Scott McCracken) has cut a deal with a murderous yakuza betting syndicate that his boy will deliberately take a fall in the ring. But Sullivan is too proud to play along, holding on to his last shreds of self-respect even if that means potentially signing his own death warrant.
Meanwhile, Masahiro mentally prepares for his clash with Sullivan by tracking down reclusive former champ Tetsuro (Hiroyuki Watanabe) in his remote, snowy fortress old solitude. Initially reluctant to play sensei, the old recluse soon begins testing his young pupil with unorthodox training methods. He teaches him to catch fish by hand in an icy stream, hunt blindfold in woodland and resist the erotic temptations of sexy courtesan Asami (Hazuki Kato). Like Yoda, Tetsuro speaks in Zen-lite riddles that strain for profundity but mostly sound like sappy inspirational poster slogans. “Your only enemy is ego,” he counsels Masahiro. “Inside you is a path, are you afraid to take it…?”
Behind its silly highbrow pretensions and cryptically jumbled, nonlinear plot, In Full Bloom is essentially a vintage B-movie melodrama, peopled by stock characters who embody glib notions about ancestral honor codes and solemn manly pride. Juggling an impressive assortment of hats as co-directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and editors, VillaSenor and Ghassemi at least clothe this flimsy parable in sumptuous visuals, luscious colors and elegant production design. The climatic boxing match is also a superbly composed set piece of kinetic camerawork, expressionistic lighting and sweat-soaked slo-mo close-ups of balletic brutality: Malick pastiche meets Scorsese homage. A lyrical, gleaming score by Andrew Kawczynski, whose previous credits include Inception and Wonder Woman, adds to the sense of a slight story punching above its weight thanks to its classy overall packaging.
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
Production companies: JA Productions, Bleiberg Entertainment
Cast: Tyler Wood, Yusuke Ogasawara, Hoiroyuki Watanabe, S. Scott McCracken, Hazuki Kato, Stefanie Estes, Timothy V. Murphy
Directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors: Adam VillaSenor, Reza Ghassemi
Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Nick Donnermeyer, Jacob Stein, Adam VillaSenor, Reza Ghassemi
Music: Andrew Kawczynski
Costume designer: Athena Lawton
Sales contact: Bleiberg Entertainment