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It’s been a couple of years since the graphic cold open of Gaspar Noe’s Love 3D, but actor-director Koichi Imaizumi puts that to shame with Berlin Drifters, an explicit, willfully confrontational romance that will split audiences down porn-versus-art lines while debating whether the characters found what they were looking for. (For the record, there’s too much awkwardness and unsightly hair for this to be porn.) Two Japanese men in Berlin are seeking genuine connection in their own ways, and in doing so come together and drift apart over the course of a few lusty weeks.
A low-budget, all-hands-on-deck affair, Berlin Drifters unites a who’s who of Asian and European eroticists, from Dutch porn star Michael Selvaggio and German self-described erotic photographer Claude Kolz to Chinese LGBT activist and dramatist Xiaogang Wei. Most notable, however, could be the participation of Japanese gay erotica artist Gengoroh Tagame, most easily described as Japan’s Tom of Finland. The XXX nature of Berlin Drifters’ sex and lack of Love-style polish is going to keep it out of mainstream cinemas and even the most permissive of festivals, but targeted niche events and download and streaming services could be the key to finding the film’s audience — which is indeed out there.
When the guy he flew from Tokyo to Berlin to see tosses young Ryota (Lyota Majima) out of his apartment after they have sex, Ryota finds himself crashing at an underground sex club, having little in the way of accommodation options. He was convinced it was true love with his online fling and is not prepared to be homeless. After grabbing a drink with his artist friend Xioagang (Wei) at the same bar, Koichi (director Imaizumi) takes pity on Ryota and offers to let him stay at his place in Nollendorfplatz. Ryota is initially overly thankful — cleaning, shopping, offering sex — and the pair settle into an odd domesticity. But eventually Ryota’s Grindr account beckons, previous disaster be damned, and he starts to see other men, unable to reel in his searching nature. Koichi, however, is becoming attached, and jealousy starts to creep into the relationship, such as it is.
Imaizumi is perhaps best known as a pinku eiga actor — the soft-core Japanese mini-features, celebrated in last year’s Nikkastu roman porno series and which have given some of the country’s most prominent filmmakers their starts. As a director, he dabbled with graphic sex in both The Secret to My Silky Skin (starring Majima) and the troubling sci-fi rape comedy The Family Complete; however his first film, 2007’s First Love, remains his best. That was a subtle, charming story about a teen coming of age over a summer and embracing his identity as a gay man. That same narrative control lurks in Berlin Drifters, and is made more vivid by Tagame’s first foray into screenwriting. Tagame’s fans will be pleased to know his hallmarks (the extremes of sexuality and masculinity) are present and accounted for, but so are the insights regarding acceptance and the stigmas surrounding homosexuality in Japan that underpinned his smart, moving, G-rated family manga, My Brother’s Husband. Between the two, they create a Berlin that is wild and enticing, ideal for the naïve Ryota, who’s sure he’s going to find blistering romance in 48 hours. At the same time, it’s a safe haven, where Koichi can hide from the troubled past the ignored phone calls hint at and contemplate how much he values an equally troubled prior relationship. Ryota and Koichi are also nicely etched as travelers on the same road, coming from different directions.
You just have to get past all the sex to see it. Berlin Drifters will also be hampered by its raw production values and hit-and-miss performances, but even those can’t really disguise the film’s fundamentally sweet — and traditional — heart. Imaizumi and Tagame are, ironically, meticulous in their use of sex, with the most emotionally rewarding segments as blatantly free of full-frontal nudity as the rest of the film is chock full of it. Koichi’s reunion with his old boyfriend Mioo and a farewell with Xiaogang are as affecting as they are pointed, as is Ryota’s slow realization that he may be looking for true love all the wrong way — for him. Alexanderplatz has never looked so lonely.
Production companies: habakari-cinema+records, Jurgen Bruning Filmproduktion
Cast: Lyota Majima, Koichi Imaizumi, Mioo Sato, Xiaogang Wei, Michael Selvaggio, Claude Kolz, Jochen Werner, Toby Ashraf
Director: Koichi Imaizumi
Screenwriter: Gengoroh Tagame
Producer: Hiroki Iwasa
Director of photography: Hiroki Taguchi
Editors: Hiroki Iwasa, Koichi Imaizumi
World sales: habakari-cinema+records
In Japanese and English
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