'Orphans' Blues': Film Review | Filmart 2019

Courtesy of HKIFF
'Orphans' Blues'
An understated indie character study.

Japanese filmmaker Riho Kudo's road movie, about a young amnesiac's attempt to find an estranged childhood friend, won the Grand Prize of the indie-oriented Pia Film Festival in Tokyo in the fall.

Revolving around a young woman's efforts in reconnecting with a past she's fast forgetting because of the onset of amnesia, Orphans' Blues offers a relationship drama that's raw in its emotions and also its narrative. The latest filmmaker to graduate from Tokyo's Pia Film Festival — Japanese auteurs Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sion Sono and Yuya Ishii are among the event's past grand prize winners — Riho Kudo has delivered a first feature filled with the flaws, flair and fury one would expect from a promising young filmmaker.

Unlike Pia's winners from last year (the horror-inflected Our House and the punky Amiko), Orphans' Blues is a decidedly understated affair both in terms of its plot and its aesthetics, with the film playing out like an indie road movie — understandable, perhaps, as Kudo was still studying at the Kyoto University of Arts and Design during its production. While not exactly full-fledged enough to be marketed as a general-release title, the film merits play in festivals seeking new voices in Japanese indie cinema. The Pia Fest is repping the film at Filmart.

Central to Orphans' Blues is Emma (Yukino Murakami), a lonely roadside bookseller in a small town. As the film begins, she is shown fumbling through her daily routines: she forgets to make an order for her customer, and scalds herself on a hot-water tap she has just turned on. Scribbling furiously in a notebook about everything she needs to remember, her pathological memory loss becomes somehow evident, as is her silent pain in grappling with her own situation.

In silent defiance against this condition, she packs up and leaves home to look for Yang, a boy who used to be her best friend (or maybe more) when they were both living in an orphanage. After futile trips in the sweltering summer to addresses in a Chinatown and then an abandoned house in the provinces, she arrives at a downtown disco where she runs into Van (Takuro Kamikawa), another close friend of Emma's and Yang's from the orphanage. Having failed to flee to Tahiti with some gangster's loot, Van and his girlfriend Yuri (Nagiko Tsuji) decide to join Emma in her search for Yang.

Following traces she found in letters she received from Yang, Emma and her travel mates eventually arrive at an inn where the tattooed owner Luka (Tamaki Kubose) and tenant Aki (Sion Sasaki) were connected in different ways to the vanished man. Their suppressed emotions add to the tangled relationship between Emma and Van, something which sparks off Yuri's jealousy. All that's seething under the boil finally erupts into the open, as the young women and men stumble and bawl (at each other and themselves) over their suppressed feelings and, for Emma, the inability to recall her past.

Driven more by tense atmospherics than a taut screenplay, Orphans' Blues is admittedly vague at times. But Kudo manages to paper over these cracks by teasing angst-ridden turns from her young cast: their interactions provide an engaging snapshot of the ennui and dynamism driving young, vulnerable individuals along as they try to make their lives whole. Bolstered by Saki Tanimura's varied and invariably engaging camerawork, Orphans' Blues offers enough glimpses of a thoughtful and humane filmmaker in the making.

Production company: Pia Film Festival
Cast: Yukino Murakami, Takuro Kamikawa, Nagiko Tsuji, Sion Sasaki
Director/screenwriter/editor: Riho Kudo
Producers: Yuyu Ikeda, Atsushi Tanizawa
Director of photography: Saki Tanimura
Production designers: Mei Yanagi, Prommuang Somchai
Costume designer: Nobuko Nishida
Sales: Pia Film Festival
In Japanese
89 minutes