'Happiness': Film Review | Busan 2016

Busan International Film Festival - Happiness -Still 1 -H 2016
Busan International Film Festival
A long, long way from joyous.

Japanese cult favorite director Sabu tackles national malaise and the value of memory in his new film starring Masatoshi Nagase.

Is wallowing in past memories a harmless bit of indulgence, a dangerous hurdle to personal growth, a necessary agony or all of the above? Those are among the central questions in Happiness, a carefully modulated revenge thriller that manages to tuck a few surprises into its relatively conventional narrative. The Japanese penchant for reveling in distress and a national disposition of pessimism is the framework upon which filmmaker Sabu hangs his latest misleadingly dreamy drama. The quiet, swift-moving story of a drifter lifting a down-in-the-dumps town’s spirits before fulfilling his own agenda has a lot on its plate, but never feels overstuffed as it slowly winds its way to its inevitable conclusion.

Making a return to the kind of understated, observational film he mastered in work like Dead Run, festival mainstay Sabu’s name above the title will ensure Happiness a robust trip around the festival circuit, and there’s a strong case for limited release in urban markets familiar with his more accessible actioners (Hard Luck Hero, D.A.N.G.A.N. Runner). Download services should also be able to exploit Sabu’s cult status.

When mild-mannered, vaguely monosyllabic Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase, Sweet Bean, Sakuran) arrives in a sleepy Japanese town it seems like a stroke of good luck. Kanzaki is in possession of a happiness machine, a contraption that looks like a mad scientist’s hybrid of something from Hellraiser and Brazil. After using it on an unhappy, despondent elderly shopkeeper and restoring her good cheer and after getting over the mayor’s initial resistance, Kanzaki makes the device available to the entire town. He restores a bit of bounce to the depressed town’s residents, most of whom we first encounter in the district employment office, by allowing them to recall their happiest moments — everything from hitting a game-winning home run as a kid to the birth of a first child. But Kanzaki has a brutal side, and it soon becomes clear that his arrival was no accident. Things come to a violent (naturally, it’s Sabu) head when he meets former juvenile convict Inoue (Hiroki Suzuki), who lives in self-imposed exile just outside town.

In typical Sabu fashion, bursts of levity eventually give way to poetic violence, and though Happiness at first glance appears to be a whimsical comedy-drama about a traveling salesman of sorts and his magical machine, it soon reveals its considerably more contemplative core. It best recalls the director’s underrated Miss Zombie, which started as a twisted comedy about an android housekeeper and ended as a snarky examination of humanity. Scratch the surface of Happiness and viewers will find a gruesome, tragic backbone propping up the narrative, and an exploration of whether or not there can truly be happiness without sorrow (kind of a bloodier Inside Out) and how crucial they both are to making each of us who we are.

As Happiness unfolds, Sabu’s lean, efficient script (light on dialogue) becomes more and more hypnotic with each revelation, helped along by steady compositions and images by Koichi Furuya that are punctuated to full effect by handheld camera work at just the right time. But the film relies on Nagase to provide its emotional weight, and the veteran actor is largely up to the task. His low-key performance is rooted in simmering sadness — and rage — that dominate his memories, and they’re subtly etched on his face. The rest of the technical specs are as polished as expected.

Production company: Live Max Film, Rapid Eye Movies

Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Hiroki Suzuki, Erika Okuda, Tetsuya Chiba

Director-screenwriter: Sabu

Producer: Shozo Ichiyama

Executive producer: Ken Ariyama

Director of photography: Koichi Furuya

Production designer: Tatsuya Amano

Editor: Genta Tamaki

Music: Junichi Matsumoto

In Japanese

No rating, 91 minutes