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Independent Japanese writer-director Eiji Uchida returns to the territory of wannabe gangsters, moderate losers and unsavory behavior he explored in Lowlife Love (which put Japan’s low rent straight-to-DVD and porn industries in the spotlight) and Greatful Dead (with its neglected, searching central character) in Love and Other Cults, a similarly dark comedy that somehow marries the core ideas and themes of the two. The film’s polished production and general accessibility will guarantee indie-level success at home in Japan, where audiences may be curious about Uchida’s follow-up to the controversial Lowlife. Elsewhere, art house distributors and festivals that found success with Uchida’s vaguely confrontational brand of scabrous comedy should line up to check out Love.
Contrary to the common complaint about filmmakers who don’t know when to end their stories, and films that are simply too long, Love and Other Cults packs a boggling amount of narrative into its lean 95 minutes. At times it can feel like too much, but Uchida juggles his characters’ various arcs efficiently, making every frame and line of dialogue count. An energetic pop-punk sensibility keeps the film moving at a breezy clip, though there are times when more detail would have been welcome, particularly with the more peripheral characters. All in all, however, the trade-off of more depth for brevity works in Uchida’s favor.
Starting in the middle of the twisted romance the film pivots on, we meet Ai (Sairi Ito), an innocent-looking young woman who bounces from home to home, look to look, and identity to identity in her seemingly ceaseless quest to find belonging. She drifts from her neglectful, resentful religious nut mother, to an oddball cult, a gang of druggie dropouts, a traditional nuclear family and finally the porn industry, all the while shadowed by Ryota (Kenta Suga). Their paths cross in high school, and it’s love at first sight, but Ryota too is something of an untethered misfit. His circle of friends includes orange-haired aspiring Yakuza Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura), and his buddy Kenta (Antony), who’s the muscle of the outfit but harbors a sensitive heart. They work for small-time boss Kida (Denden), though Kenta tries to keep any serious criminal activity at arm’s length.
A great deal of what works in Love and Other Cults can be attributed to its strong, young leads and the whiff of veracity brought in by its supporting cast of actual delinquents; the film is allegedly based on a true story and shot under police supervision. Ito brings real depth to what could easily be a paper-thin archetype, keeping her surfacey manipulations understandable, and her loneliness and desperate need for connection in nuanced balance, ditto for Yoshimura’s bluster, which also masks insecurity. The strongest relationship, however, is between Kenta and his diver/photographer girlfriend, Hanae Kan’s Reika, a genuinely sweet bond that you can really root for. These two deserve their own movie.
Uchida and cinematographer Maki Ito don’t get fancy with their imagery, but the dead-end feel of the unidentified Podunk town is tangible from minute one. There’s lots of talk about “getting away to Tokyo” and it’s easy to understand why these young people of varying ambitions would want to. Less welcome is the requisite dose of sexual assault as punishment, this time perpetrated upon Reika. Abusing the girlfriend of a man that needs to be taught a lesson is a narrative thread that needs to be put to bed, true to life or otherwise.
Production company: Third Window Films
Cast: Sairi Ito, Kenta Suga, Kaito Yoshimura, Antony, Hanae Kan, Denden, Nanami Kawakami, Yoshimasa Kondo, Leona Hirata, Matsumi Maiguma, Ami Tomite, Atsushi Shinohara, Tarou Yabe
Director: Eiji Uchida
Screenwriter: Eiji Uchida
Producer: Adam Torel
Director of photography: Maki Ito
Costume designer: Akemi Fukano
Editor: Masashi Komino,
Music: Hiroyuki Onogawa
World sales: Third Window Films
No rating, 94 minutes
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