'Maki': Film Review

Courtesy of Ben Wolf
An assured, engaging indie.

A young Japanese woman in New York is the heroine of a beautifully made story of cultural displacement and innocence betrayed.

The heroine of Maki is a naive-looking Japanese woman who seems out of place in the blue-tinged light of the New York gentleman’s club where she works. Her discomfort goes to the heart of writer and director Naghmeh Shirkhan’s absorbing, precisely shaped second feature.

Maki, known as Eva at the club, is an innocent among wolves, and a stranger in a land whose foreignness goes beyond language. Through her, Shirkhan deftly creates a story of cultural displacement and romantic and sexual exploitation. Visually lovely, naturally acted and shot in only 18 days, this effective little drama shows how much a confident filmmaker with a terrific cast and crew can do on a shoestring.

From the start, Shirkhan places viewers into scenes, without any needless exposition. We first see Maki (played convincingly by Naomi Sundberg, who had not acted before) putting on a silver spangled dress and makeup, then wiping off some of the lipstick.

At the club, she is surrounded by much more garishly dressed and made-up women. The often-elliptical film is circumspect about exactly what these hostesses do besides drink and flirt with rich Japanese businessmen. But the woman who runs the club is clearly devious. Known as Mama-San, she is played by Mieko Harada, so memorable as the evil Lady Kaede in Kurosawa’s Ran. Getting the actress may have seemed like a coup, but Harada’s more mannered style feels out of synch with the down-to-earth performances of the rest of the cast.

Mama-San’s associate is Tommy (Julian Chi), young, handsome and effective at recruiting women. We assume that’s how Maki got the job. She and Tommy are romantically involved, and because we are less naive than the heroine, warning bells about his true feelings are set off right way. Shirkhan effectively uses the distance between what we know and what Maki does to create tension and narrative momentum.

The film moves between the club and the outside world as fluidly as the characters go back and forth between Japanese and English, depending on the situation. Enhancing those contrasts, Ben Wolf’s stunning cinematography captures the deep blue shadows of the club and the clarity of New York in daylight, or the harsh light of a late-night diner where Maki sits alone scratching off a pile of lottery tickets as she waits for Tommy. (A couple of brief scenes were shot in Tokyo by Katsuori Yanagijima.) Each scene reflects the easy pace of daily life, but the film never feels slow.

Sundberg doesn’t overplay Maki’s innocence. She is young, vulnerable, and hesitant to believe the worst about Tommy, but she is not stupid. In a sly performance, Chi makes Tommy a more veiled character. He may raise our suspicions, but he also keeps us guessing until some plot turns reveal the truth. Shirkhan gave a giant hint about those twists, some more surprising than others, when she told an interviewer she was inspired by the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Anyone who has seen any of the other films the book inspired, including Cruel Intentions, will be clued in to the danger Maki faces.

The film flags a bit after those revelations, becoming more plot-driven and less the engaging character piece it had been. But Shirkhan’s style is consistent, using images to reveal thoughts and situations. Toward the end, a scene of Maki walking in a snowy wooded area in upstate New York has no dialogue. Shirkhan trusts the viewer to see the worry on the character’s face, and Sundberg doesn’t let the director down.  

Not much is revealed about Maki’s background, either. A Skype conversation with her family in Tokyo discloses that she had followed an American boyfriend to the U.S. and is now sending money home to help with her mother’s hospital bills. The sick mother is one of the film’s few cliches, and Skyping-as-exposition one of its few clumsy touches.

In her first film, The Neighbors (2010), Shirkhan drew on her own memories. She was a small child when her family immigrated to the U.S. from Iran. Maki is obviously less personal, but it is also not an attempt to define or explain Japanese culture. Maki eloquently stands in for exploited women of any culture who become victims and survivors.

Production companies: Ugly Productions, Small Talk Inc., Tokyo New York Films

Cast: Mieko Harada, Julian Cihi, Naomi Sundberg, Yurika Ohno, Blanca Vivancos

Director and screenwriter: Naghmeh Shirkhan

Producers: Nicky Akmal, Shohreh Golparian, Naghmeh Shirkhan

Directors of Photography: Ben Wolf, Katsunori Yanagijima

Production designer: Anna Kathleen

Costume designer: Hannah Kittel

Editors: Naghmeh Shirkhan, Shogo Yokoyama

Music: Patricia Brennan, Noel Brennan

International sales: DreamLab Films

103 minutes