'Our Family': Cairo Review

Our Family Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Phantom Film

Our Family Still - H 2014

This quietly devastating family drama is all the more powerful for its impressive restraint

Yuya Ishii's drama concerns a Japanese family beset by devastating health and financial issues

Reminiscent of the great humanistic dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, Our Family is an almost unbearably moving portrait of a family torn asunder by a devastating health diagnosis and long-buried financial problems. Beautifully acted by its ensemble and directed with elegant restraint by Yuya Ishii, usually known for darkly satirical comedies, the film ratchets up its emotional tension in precise increments that illustrates that its filmmaker's stylistic change in direction is only for the better. Recently showcased at the Cairo International Film Festival, it should find appreciate art house audiences worldwide.

Set in a Tokyo suburb, the film, adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Kazumasa Hayami, introduces us to a middle-aged couple, Katsuaki (Kyozo Nagatsuka) and Miyuki (Mei Kurokawa), who are overjoyed to discover that their eldest son, Kosuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and his wife Miyuki (Mei Kurukawa) are expecting their first child. But at a family dinner with the in-laws to celebrate the occasion, Miyuki lapses into gibberish suggesting that something is seriously wrong.

The doctors quickly determine that she has a malignant brain tumor and has only a week to live. Although initially overcome by shock, the family soon galvanizes into action, with Kosuke enlisting his carefree younger brother Shunpei (Sozuke Ikematsu) into helping him get a second opinion even as their father retreats into childish helplessness. Kosuke's wife, meanwhile, keeps her distance, even making unconvincing excuses to avoid visiting her mother-in-law in the hospital.

Read More Japan Box Office: Takashi Miike's Latest Bows on Top

The immediate threat of daunting medical bills exposes another crack in the familial armor, as the father reveals that he's hopelessly in debt. Compounding the problem is the fact that he made his eldest son the guarantor of his loans, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Miyuki, seemingly oblivious to her situation, remains cheerful throughout, displaying a girlish demeanor that may or not be the result of her illness, while Kosuke, trapped in an unsatisfying job and stifling marriage, finds himself tapping into unexpected reserves of maturity and strength as he stoically goes about seeking solutions to the family's problems.

Read More Oscars: Japan Nominates 'The Light Shines Only There' in Foreign-Language Category

Filming in long, extended takes that emphasize the emotional gaps among the characters, writer/director Ishii never allows the proceedings to devolve into mawkishness or melodrama despite the high stakes involved. Even the most deeply flawed figures emerge sympathetically, thanks to the beautifully restrained performances. Tsumabuki is particularly compelling as the resolute eldest son, conveying endlessly complex emotions with the simplest of gestures and stony facial expressions. When he finally displays a relieved smile as the film concludes, the effect is all the more devastatingly touching for its simplicity.

Production: Phantom Films
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kyozo Nagatsuka, Sozukie Ikematsu, Mieko Harada, Mei Kurukawa, Shingo Sturumi, Yuka Itaya, Yusuke Santa Maria, Mikako Ichikawa
Director/screenwriter: Yuya Ishii
Producer: Takuro Nagai
Executive producers: Riki Takeuchi, Keisuke Konishi, Yoshinori Kano, Yoshitaka Hori, Kazuyuki Kitaki, Yasuhika Wakayama
Director of photography: Junichi Fujisawa
Production designer: Ai Kuriyama
Editor: Shinichi Fushima
Costume designer: Kyoko Baba
Composer: Takashi Watanabe
Casting: Sawako Oozu

No rating, 117 min.