'Hee' ('Hi'): Film Review

Hee Film Partners
More fuel is needed for this fire.

Veteran actor-director Kaori Momoi relocates a Japanese short story about an arsonist's recollections of her past to her current home of Los Angeles.

Nearly a decade after fashioning a directorial debut filled with wacky camerawork and outlandish humor — including a memorable animated sequence featuring foul-mouthed ants — Japanese cinematic icon Kaori Momoi returns with a second film with more of the ultra-stylistic same. An adaptation of crime novelist Fuminori Nakamura's short story about a middle-aged prostitute's shifting recollections and rationalizations of her arsonist past, Hee comes complete with jump cuts, startling musical cues, warped timelines and a typically outlandish performance from Momoi herself as the protagonist.

Produced on a much smaller budget than Faces of a Fig Tree in 2006, Hee — reportedly shot over 10 days in Momoi's current home city of Los Angeles, and mostly within her own house — is as baffling, bewildering and bewitching as her previous outing. Having bowed at Berlin's more experimental Forum sidebar before making its Asian premiere in Hong Kong, Hee should be able to smolder on through the festival circuit. It could perhaps become part of a pair-up with German filmmaker Doris Dorrie's Fukushima, mon amour, in which Momoi stars as a cranky refugee returning to her lethally radiated home near the heavily damaged nuclear plant in the titular Japanese prefecture.

Hee is Japanese for fire, a reference to the infernal misdeeds committed by Azusa (Momoi): She begins the film talking about how she set her family home ablaze when she was younger, and ends it with a confession about how her boyfriend and her daughter perished in flames. But Momoi herself is on fire as well, as she shifts gears throughout the film and sometimes even within a single scene. Bankable as always, she conveys her character's mix of angst, confusion and outright madness resulting from an abused childhood, a broken first marriage, a descent into the skin trade, and finally the false dawn of a second relationship with a bullying American man (Chris Harrison).

The viewer is charged with piecing all this together through Azusa's fragmentary revelations over her two rounds of intensive visits to the psychiatrist Sanada (Yugo Saso): the first when she's simply a disturbed patient, the second years later when she is a suspect being tested for her sanity before her trial for murder. To Momoi's credit — as the performer, but also the director/co-writer/co-editor — one is never certain whether to trust these morsels of fantastic half-truths, as Azusa's near-schizophrenic behavior comes with hectic editing pushing and pulling the narrative along the timeline.

Sanada is set up as much more than a mere sounding board for the protagonist's mental schisms. After Azusa loudly taunts him for being a bad shrink, the meek psychiatrist shudders. While leading a seemingly simple life at home with his colleague/wife (Ayako Fujitani) and their bright daughter Miku (Melody Thi), Sanada's perspective changes ever slightly as his exchanges with Azusa stack up. His family sequences become ever more disorienting and jarring, with scenes starting and ending abruptly and parts of conversations suddenly obscured by heavy rock music.

Such ominous foreboding comes to naught, however, as Momoi and her co-writers Miyuki Takahashi and Daisuke Kamijo somehow decided against sculpting Hee into a raging two-hander of a psychological thriller. Now clocking in at just 72 minutes, Hee seems to be a truncated result of an originally audacious premise — an irony, perhaps, given how one would expect Momoi to have a freer hand now that she's shooting this in a milieu far away from the cultural straitjacket in her native Japan. For the actor-director — renowned as much as her collaborations with non-Japanese directors (from Rob Marshall on Memoirs of a Geisha to Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun) as her outspoken criticism of Japanese cinema — the future lies with more fire, not less.

Production companies: Katsudo Co., Yoshimoto Creative Agency, Booster Projects
Cast: Kaori Momoi, Yugo Saso, Ayako Fujitani, Chris Harrison
Director: Kaori Momoi
Screenwriters: Miyuki Takahashi, Kaori Momoi, Daisuke Kamijo
Producers: Hidesuke Kataoka, Kazuyoshi Okuyama, Tadashi Nakamura, Chikako Nakabayashi
Director of photography: Gints Berzins
Art directors: Kaori Mamoi, Jake Wilkens
Production designer: Rachel Lee Payne-Darrow
Costume designer: Kaori Momoi
Editor: Naoki Watanabe, Kaori Momoi, Daisuke Kamijo
Music: Yohei Shikano
International Sales: Free Stone Productions

In Japanese and English

No ratings, 72 minutes

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