Forma: Berlin Review

Haunting Japanese psychodrama.

Japanese director Ayumi Sakamoto's debut is a maddeningly slow but powerfully atmospheric thriller.

BERLIN -- Revenge is a dish served colder than the North Pole in this chilly Japanese psycho-thriller from first-time director Ayumi Sakamoto. Following its award-winning premier in Tokyo, Forma made its international debut at the Berlin film festival this week, where it has just picked up a prize from the International Federation of Film Critics. With its glacially slow pace and ultra-minimal mannerisms, the film feels purposely designed to test the viewer's patience. But once you tune into its constant background hum of low-level menace, it becomes a quietly compelling study in creeping dread and urban alienation, with overtones of Michael Haneke at his bleakest.

With pleasing irony, Sakamoto began her big-screen career working for Shinya Tsukamoto, the hyperkinetic director of Tokyo Fist and the Tetsuo series. Her rigorously austere approach, with its music-free soundtrack, drab interiors and washed-out colors, almost feels like a deliberate counter-reaction to his amped-up comic-book style. A labor of love that took six years to complete, and feels almost as long to watch, Forma will divide critical opinion. But it is strong and original enough to grab further festival play, and could interest adventurous arthouse distributors outside Japan.

Nagisa Umeno stars as Ayako, a single young woman living a cramped, unsatisfied life in a small apartment with her divorced dad (Ken Mitsuishi). After a chance meeting on the street with  former high-school classmate Yukari (Emiko Matsuoka), Ayako offers to find her a job in the office where she works.

But Ayako's kindness masks a darker agenda as she quickly adopts a bullying tone towards her new co-worker, spreading poisonous gossip about Yukari and taking an intrusive interest in her fiance, played by co-screenwriter Ryo Nishihara. Behind the ritual politeness of Japanese corporate life, the relationship between the women becomes progressively more prickly, culminating in an explosive confrontation in the office storeroom.

Pieced together like a forensic reconstruction, Forma climaxes with a 24-minute scene that the viewer has already seen twice in fragments from different character viewpoints. Filmed in a single unbroken static shot, this finale contains shock revelations and physical violence, shifting audience sympathy uneasily between vengeful Ayako and dishonest Yukari. But even for her big reveal, Sakamoto remains guarded and cryptic, letting the horror happen just out of frame with Haneke-esque detachment.

Like a film noir stretched to double length and stripped of all its twisty narrative tension, Forma is as maddening as it is compelling. Teasingly, it ends without ever fully explaining the back story to the festering resentment and malice of the previous two and a half hours. For some viewers, the long journey to this opaque conclusion will feel like wasted time. With a sharper edit the movie could easily be an hour shorter, but that would make it more conventional and arguably less powerful. Sakamoto has made a haunting, absorbing, uncompromising debut that hints at future greatness.

Production company: Kukuru Inc.
Producer: Fumiyuki Yanaka
Cast: Emiko Matsuoka, Nagisa Umeno, Seiji Nozoe, Ken Mitsuishi, Ryo Nishihara
Director: Ayumi Sakamoto
Screenwriter: Ryo Nishihara, based on an idea by Ayumi Sakamoto
Cinematographer: Shinya Yamada
Sound design: Masaru Takahashi
Sales company: Free Stone Productions, Tokyo
Unrated, 145 minutes