'A Bride for Rip Van Winkle': Film Review

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of GoldenScene
A director’s cut in the truest sense of the word.

'Love Letter' director Iwai Shunji returns to feature filmmaking with another lyrical and deliberate meditation on loneliness and connection.

Weaving heady subjects like the breakdown and remaking of the Japanese family, the continuing rigidity of Japanese social mores and how identity and human connection are created, maintained and evaluated in the Internet age, the latest from lyricist Iwai Shunji, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, blessedly bears all of the hallmarks of the filmmaker’s most popular work, chief among it 1995’s Love Letter. However, Bride also embodies the idea that less is more and isn’t waiting for DVD to showcase the three-hour director’s cut, if its release in both formats in Hong Kong is any indication. A full 60 minutes longer than the standard theatrical release, the director’s cut would have been best suited to Blu-ray, where Iwai completists will be able to pore over every extra frame.

Pivoting on the story of a woman manipulated into a genuine relationship, Bride is neither as weepily romantic as Love Letter, nor as ahead of the curve as 2002’s underrated All About Lily Chou-Chou. Nonetheless, Iwai's track record should give the film a substantial life in Asia-Pacific, and overseas festivals and art house circuits that have taken a shine to Iwai in the past will do so again here, though the edited cut could potentially provide stronger financial returns.

Returning to feature filmmaking for the first time since 2004’s Hana and Alice (the exception being 2011’s English-language curio Vampire), Iwai proves he hasn’t lost his lyrical, emotionally understated touch. Bride relies heavily on repressed feelings and Japanese reticence to carry it forward, though it does so with hit-and-miss efficacy. The three-hour runtime seems justified when Iwai lets his characters fragile, burgeoning relationships develop at a leisurely pace and revel in the little details. At other times the pic is simply self-indulgent, allowing scenes to slip from emotionally naked to embarrassingly overwrought in a flash. Iwai served as his own editor and it shows.

Bride can be portioned into three parts that trace the glacial, baby-step growth of Nanami (Kuroki Haruo, Silver Bear-winner for The Little House), a painfully blank slate wallflower with zero personality. A part-time teacher who fails to find any middle ground with her students — they can barely hear her when she talks — Nanami also works at a convenience store to make ends meet. She thinks her life takes a turn for the better when she meets another teacher, mama’s boy Tetsuya (Jibiki Go), online and eventually marries him. Trouble arises when, having no family, friends and divorced parents, Nanami hires Amuro (Ayano Go, The Snow White Murder Case), a mysterious jack-of-all-trades and wedding fixer who provides guests for brides and grooms who need to fill seats. Amuro reappears to help when Nanami suspects Tetsuya is cheating, and again when her guest ruse is discovered and her marriage collapses.

This sets up the more engaging second and third acts, or parts, starting with Nanami’s second career as a housekeeper at a cheap hotel, then a vacant mansion. After a gig as a wedding guest thanks to Amuro — again — she meets Mashiro (Cocco), the Rip Van Winkle of the title, a terminally ill porn star, desperately lonely and looking for some sort of human connection in her final days. It soon becomes clear that Nanami and Mashiro’s chance meeting was anything but chance, but the two women form the kind of genuine bond each was seeking nonetheless.

Bride is the cinematic equivalent of writer Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84: rambling, often infuriating, frustrating and fleetingly brilliant. Iwai is a master at allowing seemingly meaningless moments to blossom into much more, and he does that frequently here. Minor beats become revealing comments on how social media is redefining how we construct an identity and then willingly realize it, and on Japan’s continuing social rigidity despite a new power to reinvent the self. This manifests best in the easy intimacy between Nanami and Mashiro as they come to know and accept each other for who they are, an intimacy that never teeters into lascivious or prurient.

But too much of the film is too long, and scenes like Nanami’s protracted (and dead-dull) wedding, her departure from the marital home (we get it, we really do) and Amuro and Nanami’s cathartic meeting with her mother feel like rookie missteps rather than a veteran in control of his narrative.

Kuroki lays on the insecure naivete too thickly, but Iwai is lucky to have Okinawa singer-songwriter Cocco to pick up the slack in the charisma department. Admittedly Kuroki possesses an innocent, anonymous demeanor that serves Nanami well, but too often the character seems simply inept at life rather than emotionally aimless. The film gets a much-needed jolt when Mashiro arrives, and Cocco brings an empathetic and complex humanity to a role that could easily tip into cliché. It’s a performance that balances mystery, regret and pain perfectly, and that hinges on nuance rather than histrionics. Technically, the pic is strong and features all the sun flares, soft focus and languid cinematography (by Kambe Chig) Iwai aficionados would expect.

Production company: Rockwell Eyes
Kuroki Haruo, Cocco, Ayano Go, Jibiki Go, Hara Hideko, Kaneda Akio, Mariya Tomoko, Lily, Saso Yugo, Wada Suko
Director-screenwriter: Iwai Shunji
Producer: Miyagawa Tomoyuki, Mizuno Aki, Kii Muneyuki
Executive producer: Sugita Shigemichi
Director of photography: Kambe Chigi
Production designer: Heya Kyoko
Editor: Iwai Shunji
Music: Kuwabara Mako
World sales: Toei

In Japanese

Not rated, 179 minutes