What the Heart Craves

Bottom Line: Inward-looking drama of neurosis alleviated by ensemble acting.

BERLIN -- Substitute navel-gazing with still shots of blood spit into rice or sustained dull stares at the window, and you get a sense of the self-obsessed and punishing neurosis that dominates "What the Heart Craves." Making his sophomore feature with the same bargain-basement budget as his award-winning debut, "The Soup One Morning," Izumi Takahashi gets extraordinary dramatic mileage out of a hate-triangle of ex- and current lovers/roommates and their entanglement with other characters.

While Takahashi is recognized by critics and arty festivals as an accomplished scriptwriter and alternative directorial talent especially in his partnerships with actor-director Hiromasa Hirosue, few buyers who care for production values and aesthetic quality would put his latest effort in their shopping cart.

At a casual after-party of a wedding reception, Kurata (Hiromasa Hirosue) performs a magic trick with keys. The keys wind up getting swapped, and Kurota goes home with his friend Mukai's key. Mukai gets ex-girlfriend Shitara (Midori Shin-e)'s key, while she ends up with Kurota's. This becomes a carte blanche for each of them to go on a merry-go-round of unannounced house visits.

Shitara discovers that Kurata has been sheltering a neighbor from her abusive husband, and makes the woman her protege and photo model. Mukai's current girlfriend Kozue (Akie Namiki), who's given to hysterical fits, snoops around in Shitara's apartment. When she encounters the battered wife, she initiates a role-play practice to toughen her. As Kozue slaps her face repeatedly, memories of her life with Shitara flood back. The two, it turns out, shared an apartment before. And as they say in every suspense-thriller tagline, nothing is what it seems.

Every character is a well of insecurity, touched by the latent sadomasochistic violence that lurks behind a workaday world. Namiki is especially good at playing a woman of contradictions -- one moment as fragile as eggshells, the next a self-centered aggressor whose mere existence is torture to those around her.

With this film, Takahashi demonstrates that he can at last hold his DV camera without a shaky hand (extreme close-ups scrutinize subjects like a microscope), and that he doesn't have to limit his sets to just one room (now he uses at least three rooms!). But in this case, less is more, and the increase of characters means that some are more developed than others, and the hottest chemistry is still generated by two: Namiki's Kozue and Shin-e's Shitara.

IMJ Entertainment Corp
Director: Izumi Takahashi
Director of photography: Izumi Takahashi, Kengo Nakamura, Hiromasa Hirosue
Music: Junya Mitsui
Kozue: Akie Namiki
Shitara: Midori Shin-e
Mukai: Wataru Monbayashi
Kurata: Hiromasa Hirosue

Running time -- 98 minutes
No MPAA rating