The Human Trust: Vladivostok Review

A relevant idea that is poorly executed.

Junji Sakamoto directs an all-star cast in globetrotting, timely financial thriller.

Ahead of its U..S. premiere in Hawaii and October release in Japan, the scrappy Vladivostok International Film Festival unveiled the latest by Junji Sakamoto, who burst on the international scene in 2000 with the delicately subversive Face. The Human Trust is built on timely examinations of power concentrated in the hands of the few and the relationships between control, progress, business and politics. The foundations don’t hold up very well, as Sakamoto—working from a verbose script by Harutoshi Fukui, adapting his own novel—never quite gets a handle on his central ideas and so never fleshes them out fully. Television could be a better medium for The Human Trust, though limited release in Asia-Pacific based on its starry cast is a remote possibility. Festival interest will be limited by its mainstream tone, however the currency of the subject matter could generate interest from targeted events.

The first half of the slightly bloated narrative plays out like a conspiracy thriller, with conman Mafune (veteran Koichi Sato, Inugami) getting wrapped up in a heist of sorts. He’s tasked (for what reason is unclear) by the son of a finance tycoon, M (Shingo Katori, Sukiyaki Western Django) to retrieve a mythic trillion-dollar “M Fund” set up by a secret cabal at the end of World War II. Legend holds the gold was taken from the basement of the Bank of Japan and tucked away for various covert operations in the future. Mafune teams up with M’s right hand man, Yuki Seki (Mirai Moriyama, Fish Story) and idealistic ex-girlfriend Miyuki (Arisa Mizuki) to gain control of the cash and put it to humanitarian use.

To this point though The Human Trust is a bit muddled (is this real money, gold or e-money Mafune is looking for now?) it has the kind of currency that lifts the film above the quality of its script. Financial thrillers with corporate and/or banking malfeasance at the heart of the story are relevant, particularly in the way their white collar villains impact the average man or woman on the street. The idea that a select few in oak-accented boardrooms are controlling and manipulating currencies and economics to the detriment of the many is a timely issue that’s worth exploring. As the film hops around the globe from Japan to Russia and finally to the halls of power on Wall Street, it looks to be heading toward a statement on wealth distribution, justice and the public good.

But then Sakamoto and Fukui go off the rails when the assassin (Korean star Yoo Ji-tae, Oldboy) shows up to throw a wrench in Mafune and Seki’s plans, and Seki turns out to be much more important than he initially appeared to be. Replete with random kung fu fights and behind the scenes scheming by an American power broker (an awkward Vincent Gallo) the second half of The Human Trust loses sight of its message and in doing so loses the audience. A baffling coda that boils down to a message of respect for smartphone technology and the political power of Instagram (!) delivered to the UN must be seen to be believed.

Technically the film is competent if unremarkable and the (occasionally wooden) cast does what it can with the material, which forces them all to swing wildly between melodramatic thriller mode and standard action hero antics. Small parts and cameos from recognizable Japanese actors Susumu Terajima, Masaki Miura, Joe Odagiri, Renji Ishibashii and Etsushi Toyokawa bring a touch of class to the film. Sakamoto is clearly well-intentioned, but the lapses and leaps in the script make the stakes unclear, in turn giving Mafune’s mission little in the way of weight. And weightless is what the (should be) heady The Human Trust ultimately is.

Producer Surin Cha-Umphanit, Alexander Doluda, Yukiko Shii

Director Junji Sakamoto

Cast Koichi Sato, Mirai Moriyama, Shingo Katori, Arisa Mizuki, Ittoku Kishibe, Yoo Ji-tae, Vincent Gallo

Screenwriter Harutoshi Fukui based on his novel

Director of Photography Norimichi Kasamatsu

Production Designer Mitsuo Harada

Music Goro Yasukawa

Editor Ryo Hayano, Etsuko Moriyama

No rating, 140minutes