'Asako I & II' ('Netemo sametemo'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Two boys, one girl, no point.

A young Japanese woman falls in love with two identical men in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Cannes competition contender.

Three years ago, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi scored international plaudits and festival prizes with his five-hour, female-driven ensemble drama Happy Hour. But anyone anticipating similar levels of fine-grained, bittersweet emotional insight from Hamaguchi's Cannes debut will be sorely disappointed. Premiered today in the festival's main competition strand, Asako I & II is a far more conventional film in every way, an oddly old-fashioned depiction of troubled romance whose mildly unusual premise ultimately leads nowhere very interesting. Still, on the plus side, at least it does not drag on for 300 minutes.

Based on a 2010 novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, Asako I & II centers on a young woman who falls in love with two physically identical men. If that plot sounds familiar, Francois Ozon came to Cannes just 12 months ago with his thematically similar erotic thriller Double Lover. Sadly, Hamaguchi has far less trashy fun with his story, a banal and patronizing cautionary sermon for lovestruck ladies torn between heart and head, sexy-dangerous bad boys and dependably dull husband types. A baffling selection for the main Cannes competition, it does little to enhance the director's reputation and seems unlikely to travel far beyond the indulgent festival bubble.

Hamaguchi adheres faithfully to the novel's decade-spanning first-person female narrative, adding just a minor subplot (with Shibasaki's permission) relating to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which occurred after the book was published. Asako (Erika Karata) is a demure, doll-faced beauty who surprises herself by falling hard and fast for shaggy-haired hottie Baku (Masahiro Higashide) after a random encounter on the streets of Osaka, a sparky connection that Hamaguchi underscores with real fireworks. Friends warn the strait-laced Asako that she should steer clear of Baku, a free spirit with an annoying habit of disappearing for days without warning. But the couple is clearly way too intoxicated with each other to care, so much so that they even continue kissing and canoodling after a motorcycle crash.

Inevitably, the hot flame of young love blows itself out when Baku does his vanishing act, leaving Asako devastated. But two years later, she runs into his uncanny physical double, handsome corporate salary man Ryohei (Higashide again). Initially, Asako cannot believe the freakish resemblance, but the couple soon begins a tentative romance that blossoms into suburban domestic bliss. Five years pass and they are still solidly together, with marriage and children under discussion. Meanwhile, Baku has found superstar fame as an actor and model. But when he crashes unexpectedly back into Asako's life, she is suddenly torn between the two men, and risks everything on a rash split-second decision.

Asako I & II is a dutiful adaptation, competently crafted and lightly charming in places, with a pair of attractive young leads. There are doubtless cultural subtleties and local references at work here that non-Japanese audiences will miss. But as a universal allegory about the conflicting extremes of romantic love, as symbolized by Asako's two lookalike boyfriends, this is a mundane story filmed in a conventional manner.

Credit is due to Kata and Higashide for breathing life into schematic, colorless characters, but the apparently potent sexual chemistry between them is never convincing. The allegedly irresistible Baku comes across as a petulant narcissist, while Asako is an annoyingly passive airhead who would not pass even a basic Bechdel Test. Hopefully, Hamaguchi will one day deliver on the promise of High Hopes, but not by wasting his talents on dreary nobodies and their minor relationship woes.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Nagoya Broadcasting Network, Bitters End
Cast: Masahiro Higashide, Erika Karata, Koji Seto, Rio Yamashita, Sairi Ito
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Screenwriters: Sachiko Tanaka, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, based on the novel by Tomoka Shibasaki
Producers: Yuji Sadai, Teruhisa Yamamoto, Yasuhiko Hattori
Cinematographer: Yasuyuki Sasaki
Editor: Azusa Yamazaki
Music: Tofubeats
Sales company: MK2 Films
119 minutes