Bottom Line: Like vintage Medoc, Shinji Aoyama's originally shelved project is a tour de force worth its aging time.Venice Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival
TOKYO -- "Sad Vacation" (Saddo Bakeshon) completes Shinji Aoyama's "North Kyushu Saga," which began as a road movie 11 years ago with "Helpless" and expanded into a spiritual quest in 2000's "Eureka." A powerful tale of quasi-biblical cycles of sin, atonement and redemption, it's a work of pristine beauty in which every shot counts in the emotive and structural development of the Japanese auteur's humane vision.
Playing as the opening film of Venice's Orizzonti section, even viewers less familiar with his conceptual and, at times, difficult opus will find "Sad Vacation" an accessible entry point with its rich human dramas and assured management of a huge and superlative cast. Tadanobu Asano, Aoi Miyazaki and other supporting actors such as Ken Mitsuishi actually aged real-time with their roles, making it easier to identify with their inner transformation during a decade.
Orphanhood in Aoyama's films has always been a metaphor for the postindustrial generation's sense of being spiritually stranded. His characters are either abandoned by runaway mothers and suicidal fathers (Kenji and Yuri in "Helpless," Kozue and Naoki in "Eureka") or disowned by their families for social transgression (Makoto and Akihiko in "Eureka").
Equally essential is his exploration of the dynamics of surrogate families as a challenge to traditional ties dictated by society. "Sad Vacation" calls a reunion of these melancholy exiles, and allows the parallel worlds in "Helpless" and "Eureka" to converge.
Opening with a bold helicopter shot that immediately establishes the director's ambitions to create a broad human canvas, we find Kenji (Asano) 10 years on, still holding onto his inner demons and to Yuri, the mentally challenged daughter left by his yakuza friend. The transitory nature of Kenji's existence is symbolized by his job as a limousine driver on a graveyard shift. This has its perks and perils: He attracts a hostess customer, but gets embroiled in a human smuggling scam during which he adopts an illegal immigrant boy whose father died in the ship.
One night, while driving home Mamiya, the owner of a package delivery service (another transportation trope), Kenji discovers that this customer is actually married to his long-lost mother Chiyoko (Eri Ishida). Impulsively, Kenji moves into their household with his own adopted family with dubious intent to take revenge on Chiyoko for leaving him. To Kenji's surprise, he fits right into Mamiya's homespun enterprise, which is a modern Noah's ark sheltering a staff of social misfits and babes in the wood including Kozue (Miyazaki), now a grown woman in search of her mother.
The first half of the film takes the time to draw out dramatic interest from the cagey interactions of this makeshift family, which offsets the ambiguous blood-related family formed by Kenji with Chiyoko and Mamiya. The latter half accelerates in tension with two brutal scenes of restrained power, and the revelation of a secret brings about a reprise of everything that's gone before. The moving coda attests to the human ability to repair their pasts and move on -- or that women are always there to pick up the pieces for men.
Exterior shots by Aoyama's regular and legendary cinematographer Masaki Tamura capture sweeping landscapes of Aoyama's native North Kyushu with a crystalline clarity. Music utilizes the elemental and reverberating sounds of a Mongolian instrument that reinforces the film's nomadic motif.
Stylejam/Celluloid Dreams/Sponge/©sadvacation filmpartners 2007
Director-screenwriter: Shinji Aoyama
Producer: Naoki Kai
Director of photography: Masaki Tamura
Production designer: Tsuyoshi Shimizu
Music: Hiroyuki Nagashima
Editor: Yuji Oshige
Kenji: Tadanobu Asano
Chiyoko: Eri Ishida
Kozue: Aoi Miyazaki
Goto: Jo Odagiri
Shigeo: Ken Mitsuishi
Chiyoko: Eri Ishida
Running time -- 136 minutes
No MPAA rating