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Tokyo – We Can’t Change the World, But We Wanna Build a School in Cambodia is a youth motivational film that is a slick piece of infotainment with no problem switching tones from frivolous campus caper to reality-show a la Oprah’s Big Give to educational field trip. The story, about four Tokyo university students who raised enough money in just one year to construct a school in Cambodia gains persuasiveness by being based on a real-life account. With a slate of pure, violent genre fare (Black Rat, X-Cross, Battle Royale II) Kenta Fukasaku, (son of legendary action/gangster master Kenji) may seem an odd choice for directing such heartwarming fare. But he brings attitude and edge to the representation of the young generation constantly bemoaned by Japanese media for their complacence and apathy.
Despite its simplified and pat concept of volunteering, Third World aid and account of Cambodia’s history and problems, it is one of the few efforts of its kind that make charity look hip and creative. The casting of up-and-coming (and genuinely likable) TV idol Osamu Mukai may give the project a light push in the direction of young Asian, especially Taiwan fans of Japanese pop culture. Elsewhere, it would have a tough time convincing humanitarian-slanted festivals or knowledge channels of its seriousness.
The film’s mouthful of a title is faithful to that of the self-published book by Kota Hada, who in 2005 single-handedly mobilized a intercollegiate campaign to raise money to build a school in Cambodia. He was only a second-year medical student at the time. Peer pressure and the nagging sense that there lies something more meaningful beyond their pampered existence are the competing impulses that drives every young character in the film. Hence, the film’s establishing shots cheekily juxtaposes Kota (Mukai) digging strenuously in the field with a closeup of him retching into the toilet bowl during another regular night of frat-boy revelry. Fukasaka emphasizes the random nature of Kota’s philanthropic awakening and the fact that it is boredom rather than sympathy which gets the better of the students’ circumspection. Over the course of their journey, he drives home the point that you don’t need to start with lofty ideas to do good.
At the post office, Kota picks up a pamphlet recruiting volunteers to help build a school in Cambodia. Almost capriciously, he enlists his stooge-like classmates Shibayama (Tasuku Emoto) and Yano (Masataka Kubota) to raise the prerequisite $195,000. The person who really injects energy into their project is Honda (Tori Matsuzaka), a party animal they met at an intercollegiate party. Honda comes up with the idea of approaching sponsors and holding a fund-raising clubbing event for a thousand people in youth hotspot Roppongi. It works.
The proceeds help to foot the budget for the four youngsters to fly to Cambodia and see the site where the school will be built. The trip is like an aid-worker’s prescribed route, making the requisite stops at an AIDS clinic, Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, a village strewn with land mines and smiling children. The stream of vital statistics read out along the way reinforce the educational tone. However, a turning point occurs at the prison, when the boy’s guide-cum-interpretor, Vithy (Kor Vurthy), breaks down in tears recalling his father’s tragic suffering during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. So genuinely wrought is his distress that even if he is reciting lines, his performance must be qualified by some traumatic personal experience. There are no histrionics, but a few shots of the four protagonists’ facial expressions at dinner time captures how they are totally humbled by the experience. From this point on, the film begins to make a personal, emotional connection with the audience.
As it turns out, the most “educational” and touching part is not the experiences in Cambodia, but the social and financial realities the protagonists learn to deal with after returning to Tokyo. Fukasaku shows how perseverance and crisis management is not easy when you are an insecure teenager but elicits sympathy for the protagonists’ vulnerability. His depiction of Kota’s rendezvous with a call-girl is an honest, non-P.C. and exceptionally tender scene. It is only when the young men’ returns to Cambodia for the opening ceremony of the school that the tone indulges in some self-congratulatory sentimentality.
Shooting in HD, the picture has the low-budget intimacy of TV reality show.
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival, TIFF-COM market screenings.
Sales: Toei Company, Ltd.
Production company: Central Arts.
Cast: Osamu Mukai, Tori Matsuzaka, Tasuku Emoto, Masataka Kubota, Eri Murakawa, Kor Vurthy, Hiroshi Abe.
Director: Kenta Fukasaku
Screenwriter: Shinsuke Yamaoka.
Based on the book by Kota Hada.
Producers: Gen Sato, Tsugio Hattori
Produced by: Masatake Kondo.
Directors of photography: Kazuhiro Suzuki, Toshiki Akaike.
Production designer: SHOTA
Costume designer: Junko Kaneko.
Music: Shuhei Kamimura.
Editor: Chieko Suzaki.
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