'Our House' ('Watashitachi no ie'): Film Review | Filmart 2018

Courtesy of Berlinale
A debutant making her presence felt.

Japanese helmer Yui Kiyohara makes a memorable debut with this atmospheric, deliberately paced chiller about an otherworldly collision of parallel lives.

It's hardly a surprise that Our House (Watashitachi no ie) counts J-horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa among its staunchest admirers; he may have glimpsed shadows of his more uncompromising work in the film. A slow-moving, spectral story about four people occupying the same space in parallel universes, Yui Kiyohara's directing debut gives a nod to Kurosawa’s glacially ghostly dramas like Barren Illusions (1999) and Journey to the Shore (2015).

Boasting a delicate screenplay, discreet performances and an audacious ending which leaves the central mystery unresolved, Our House signals a promising auteur in the making. Produced for Kiyohara's masters' degree at Tokyo University of the Arts, it won the grand prize at Pia Film Festival, Japan's premier platform for young filmmakers. After making its bow at the Berlinale’s Forum sidebar, the film will return to Asia with screenings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

At the center of the tale is a small, two-story home in a nondescript seaside town, where two intertwined stories unfold simultaneously. First there's Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi), a 14-year-old girl still mourning his father’s death and now having trouble coming to terms with her widowed mother's decision to move on and date another man. And then there's Toko (Mei Fujimara), a subdued twentysomething who lives on her own and mends used clothes for a living. She comes to the aid of the ailing Sana (Mariwo Osawa) at the ferry one day and invites the older woman to live with her as a housemate.

The logical guess, of course, is that the two threads must be happening one after the other, with the two pairs of characters somehow related. One could easily see the glum Seri growing up to become Toko, and poor Sana turning out to be Seri’s mother grown old.

But such readings fall by the wayside as the two independent realms begins to collide. When Sana walks around the house, Seri senses someone's presence; when Seri leaves a newspaper on the floor, Sana reads it in the next scene. And the mysteries go well beyond this, as Kiyohara adds menacing men, whispered back-alley conversations, ominous phone calls and mysterious objects into the equation.

Admittedly, Our House's plot points don't compute. But the film is probably less about sense and more about sensibility, as Kiyohara experiments with atmosphere and explores her characters' very different emotions. In a way, the strange happenings could be seen as the physical manifestation of Seri's teenage angst and Sana's anguish over her inability to remember who she is.

What's certain is that after her win at Pia, Kiyohara and her technical crew are now full-fledged members of Japanese indie cinema. Lenser Ryota Chida and Kyrgyz editor Janybek Kambaraliev illustrate the characters' ennui while ratcheting up the mystery with deft intercuts between the two stories.

Production company: Graduate School of Film and New Media, Tokyo University of the Arts
Cast: Nodoka Kawanishi, Yukiko Yasuno, Mariwo Osawa, Mei Fujimara
Director: Yui Kiyohara
Screenwriters: Yui Kiyohara, Noriko Kato
Producers: Ryotaro Ikemoto, Masaru Sano
Director of photography: Ryota Chida
Production designer: Tamako Kato
Costume designer: Yuri Aoki
Music: Keiichi Sugimoto
Editing: Janybek Kambaraliev
Venue: Filmart
Sales: Pia Film Festival

In Japanese
80 minutes