The Black Square: Tokyo Review

The Black Square Film Still - H 2012
Japan and China team up on a magic realist romance that overstays its welcome.

A hipster soundtrack, an artists’ colony milieu and hot young Japanese actor Hideo Nakaizumi are the flavorsome ingredients in Hiroshi Okuhara’s offbeat drama.

TOKYO -- Abstract artists find themselves living in a conceptual world in the Beijing-set romantic fantasy The Black Square, an amiably strange Tokyo International Film Festival competition entry by Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Okuhara.

A Mandarin-language collaboration between Japanese and Chinese cast and crew, the slow-burning, impressionistic tale of a love that transcends time was filmed on location in Beijing, and its screening here represented a cinematic antidote to the politics of the China-Japan spat that spilled over into the festival.

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Echoes of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a hipster soundtrack by Tokyo-based instrumental band Sangatsu, and the inclusion of hot young Japanese actor Hideo Nakaizumi (who makes a grand entrance sans clothing) boost the production’s appeal. However, clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, the unhurried meanderings of a fairly slender narrative overstay their welcome, likely confining the film to the festival circuit.

Chen Xixu stands out in a strong cast playing the enormously likeable Zhao Ping, a struggling painter who lives with his installation-artist girlfriend Hana (Miki Suzuki) in an artists’ village on the outskirts of Beijing. He wakes one day to a large black square hovering in the pale dawn sky above his house.

Unquestioningly following the floating square to an empty field thrumming with bass-heavy ambient sound, he meets a man who has lost his memory. “Nice build,” Zhao Ping quips to the naked man (Nakaizumi, also at the festival in the Japanese indie Kuro) who has stepped out through the hollow cube, before lending him his coat and bringing him to the home he shares with Hana and his pretty young sister Lihua (Dan Hong).

Shooting in various neighbourhoods of a wintry Beijing dotted with skeletal trees, cinematographer Kenji Maki uses a frigid palette keyed to stark white, pale blue and pewter. This naturalistic look belies the fantastical nature of a film in which the surreal bumps up against the everyday with nary a raised eyebrow. Characters fade in and out of different realms with the nagging feeling they’ve met before. Lihua, who is given to wearing distractingly beautiful cold-weather outfits, finds herself inevitably drawn to the amnesiac stranger, while he and Zhao Ping quickly fall into an easy friendship peppered with jokes about the possibility of his being an alien.

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Okuhara’s screenplay attempts to introduce some otherworldly logic with a rather too obvious, clunkily inserted scene in which Lihua sums up a sci-fi novel she’s working on about lovers from different tribes who become transparent when they fall in love. More successful at hinting at characters in transition is the recurring ghostly appearance of a train, also a leitmotif in the work of auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose style Okuhara (Timeless Melody, A Blue Automobile) clearly admires.

A flashback late in the game to the Sino-Japanese War goes some way to grounding the fanciful wafting but, finally, the most enjoyable part of this concept film is the easy camaraderie between a central quartet of convincing, congenial characters.

Cast: Hideo Nakaizumi, Dan Hong, Chen Xixu, Miki Suzuki, Wang Hongwei
Production company: Black Square Film
Writer-director: Hiroshi Okuhara
Producers: Li Rui, Tomoko Okuhara
Director of photography: Kenji Maki
Production designer: Gao Peng
Editor: Hiroshi Okuhara
Music: Sangatsu
No rating, 144 minutes