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A sleepy Japanese coastal town becomes the unlikely Ground Zero for a hostile alien invasion of Earth in director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest Cannes film festival contender, Before We Vanish. The prolific Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Journey to the Shore) cites John Carpenter and vintage Cold War sci-fi allegories as key influences on his latest genre-blurring comic thriller, but there are other echoes here, too, from Simon Pegg‘s and Edgar Wright’s affectionate fanboy parodies to Lorene Scafaria’s 2012 rom-com Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
Before We Vanish is a largely faithful adaptation of a stage play by Tomohiro Maekawa that was first performed in 2005, though it clearly still resonates with Japanese audiences, having been subsequently revived several times and adapted into a novel. Kurosawa’s film version is scheduled for domestic release in September, but its slow pace and lack of strong genre signifiers will make foreign distribution a tougher sell.
In the attention-grabbing setup, teenage schoolgirl Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu) emerges from a brutal family massacre as the blood-drenched lone survivor and chief suspect. Instead of calling the police, an ice-cool Akira marches down a public highway, gleefully triggering traffic carnage with some kind of telekinetic powers. Wham, bam, thank you Mam.
But any genre fans expecting sci-fi action spectacle will feel wrong-footed here, because the pace soon relaxes into a more low-key domestic mystery story. A haunted young man named Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda) returns from an unexplained disappearance acting strangely, his face expressionless, his movements stiff, his memory apparently wiped. Shinji’s semi-estranged wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) initially suspects him of faking amnesia to cover his infidelities. The real explanation is even more incredulous: Shinji’s body has been taken over by an extraterrestrial parasite, part of an advance party sent to Earth to harvest information from humankind before wiping us out entirely in an imminent invasion.
Meanwhile, cynical journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) starts probing Akira’s murder spree, and soon becomes a willing pawn in the invasion plan by helping an eccentric young man named Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) to rescue the killer schoolgirl from police custody. Like Shinji, both Amano and Akira are possessed by undercover aliens, and the trio need to reunite to complete their shared mission. In a nicely philosophical twist, their reconnaissance work involves downloading entire concepts like “property,” “work” and “love” from the brains of their human victims, who are then unable to relearn those concepts ever again.
Perpetually shifting gear between playful sci-fi pastiche, quirky rom-com and apocalyptic thriller, Before We Vanish might have worked better as a single dedicated genre, but it becomes a little scrambled trying to cover several at once. Kurosawa’s lackadaisical direction does not help, deflating any suspense and stretching audience patience with his snoozy pacing and baggy running time. The plot is also full of goofy inconsistencies, never explaining Sakurai’s motives for effectively signing his own death warrant by aiding the aliens, or why Narumi initially seems keener to save her marriage than the entire human race.
Kurosawa belatedly cranks up the action dial for his grand finale, which includes a gunfight between aliens and government agents, a spectacular drone attack and a full-scale invasion with echoes of Independence Day. As a final twist, Before We Vanish floats the tentative take-home message that we puny humans might just save ourselves from extinction through acts of love and self-sacrifice. Which is either rousingly romantic, groaningly corny or knowingly ironic. With the tonally incontinent Kurosawa at the helm, it is hard to tell which.
Venue: Cannes film festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production company: Nikkatsu Corporation
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Yuri Tsunematsu, Hiroki Hasegawa, Mahiro Takasugi
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriters: Sachiko Tanaka, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Producers: Yuji Ishida, Naoto Fujimura, Yumi Arakawa, Tomomi Takashima
Cinematographer: Akiko Ashizawa
Editor: Koichi Takahashi
Music: Yusuke Hayashi
Sales company: Wild Bunch
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