'Kontora': Film Review

Uneven but charmingly eccentric.

Director Anshul Chauhan's prize-winning drama chronicles a Japanese schoolgirl's excavation of buried family secrets.

A grieving father and daughter have their lives shaken up by a bizarre backward-walking stranger in Kontora, an unorthodox coming-of-age fable from former animator turned feature director Anshul Chauhan. Made by a pool of international talents, this low-budget labor of love was shot in Japan by an Indian filmmaker and an Estonian cinematographer, Max Golomidov. It world premiered in competition at Black Nights film festival in Tallinn last month, where it won the Grand Prix for best film. Score composer Yuma Koda also picked up the best music prize.

Despite its minimal budget, Kontora delivers high-gloss monochrome visuals, strong performances and a layered narrative that wavers between past and present, realism and magical realism, straight family drama and poetic allegory. Its sluggish tempo and bloated running time undermine the intrigue-driven plot in places, but there is enough offbeat charm here to reward patient viewers. Further film festival slots seems pretty assured follow its prizewinning Tallinn launch, although theatrical prospects will likely be slender.

In a rural backwater region in central Japan, sulky adolescent high-schooler Sora (Wan Marui) is suddenly faced with the death of her beloved grandfather (Noriyuki Yamada). Following his funeral, she discovers an ancient trunk full of his personal keepsakes, including journals and sketchbooks chronicling his traumatic World War II military service. Due to her fractious relationship with her boozy, ill-tempered father (Taichi Yamada), Sora initially keeps the diaries to herself. Decoding her grandfather's cryptic hints of buried treasure in a nearby woodland, she resolves to find the location alone.

Meanwhile, an enigmatic outsider (Hidemasa Mase) appears in the neighborhood, an apparently homeless mute with possible mental health issues and a curious habit of walking in reverse. When a property dispute blows up between Sora's father and his extended family, this wandering vagabond becomes an unlikely extra catalyst in the mix. Co-opted into the family by Sora, the stranger remains stubbornly silent, but still finds a way to help her locate her grandfather's buried secrets before her greedy relations can pounce.

Chauhan assembles his second live-action feature with obvious technical skill, even if it sometimes feels like a fascinating puzzle whose pieces never quite fit together. In an inspired touch, Sora's grandfather's journal is composed of quotes recycled from real letters written by young Japanese soldiers in World World II. But the film's blockbuster-length running time is ill-suited to its intimate family narrative, with too many extraneous tangents and lurching tonal shifts. A tighter edit would have served the core story better.

That said, Kontora is never less than absorbing. Marui gives a fine central performance, adding nuance and depth to Sora even during her worst teen tantrums. Shooting in silvery monochrome, Golomidov delivers ravishing pastoral tableaux, nimble traveling shots and sunny splashes of lens flare. Sora's 18th birthday party is a particularly striking scene, filmed in lyrical slow motion and ablaze with magical fairy lights. Koda's electro-orchestral score is also rich and stirring.

Venue: Black Nights film festival, Tallinn
Production company: Kowatanda Films
Cast: Wan Marui, Hidemasa Mase, Taichi Yamada, Noriyuki Yamada, Seira Kojima, Takuzo Shimizu
Director/screenwriter/producer/editor: Anshul Chauhan
Cinematographer: Maxim Golomidov
Music: Yuma Koda
144 minutes