'The Promised Land' ('Rakuen'): Film Review | Busan 2019

Busan International Film Festival
Could have been more devastatingly focused.

Veteran Koichi Sato and emerging actress Hana Sugisaki headline the latest drama by "pink film" director Zeze Takahisa.

A little girl’s disappearance is the catalyst that opens a small Japanese town’s mistrustful can of worms in occasional soft-core porn director Takahisa Zeze's latest offering, the ironically titled The Promised Land. A meandering, cryptic drama about fear, demonization of the other, insular protectionism and acceptance, the movie has bitten off a bit more than it can reasonably chew — but it's not for lack of trying.

Zeze rose to prominence in the 1990s with his brand of unconventionally thought-provoking pinku eiga films, but eventually started to dabble in critically lauded indies (Heaven’s Story) and mainstream crowd-pleasers (64, The 8-Year Engagement) as well. The Promised Land falls somewhere between those two, and what first appears to be a drama in the vein of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, soon reveals its broader ambitions and bigger ideas.

Polished production and a handful of some of Japan’s most popular actors should garner the film respectable returns in Asia-Pacific and Zeze’s name above the title will make space for it at more than a few festivals. Urban overseas release on the art house circuit isn’t out of the question.

The film is broken into three parts — “Crime,” “Punishment” and “Humans” — with the first chapter revolving around the disappearance of a young girl, Aika, on her way home from school with a friend, Tsugumi. Among the residents of the small village that fan out looking for her is the odd, socially challenged Takeshi (Go Ayano, Rage), long something of a pariah for his awkwardness and his immigrant mother Yoko’s (Asuka Kurosawa) job peddling recycled goods. Yoko has a boyfriend who’s a bit of a thug and she too exists on the periphery.

Part two unfolds 12 years later with Aika still missing. Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki, Ten Years Japan) has grown into a sullen, withdrawn young woman who questions her right to be happy. Perhaps not surprisingly she befriends Takeshi when she walks home after her bike gets a flat. Also in the interim, beekeeper Zenjiro Tanaka (veteran Koichi Sato) has moved to the village to care for elderly parents. When another girl goes missing, Aika’s grieving grandfather Fujiki (Akira Emoto, Shoplifters) and the villagers decide Takeshi is the culprit in both cases. They corner him in a restaurant and tragedy ensues.

The last part brings the previous two together, putting Zenjiro at the center of the action as a suddenly unwelcome interloper. He runs afoul of the elders, who promptly ostracize him to the point that it pushes the gentle man over the edge. More tragedy ensues.

Zeze clearly has something to say about our collective penchant for mob justice and the ability of modern Japan to cling to old traditions, like “village elders” who still wield some degree of power outside the big cities. He also examines concepts regarding how we process grief and sometimes allow it to stunt forward momentum, the failure of the Japanese nation and of course the comfort found in blaming the most vulnerable among us for unfathomable catastrophe.

It’s a lot for one film, and it often feels that way. It’s hard to get a grasp on time and place; characters feel added on at a whim; Zenjiro’s sudden madness seems to come out of nowhere. At one point Tsugumi declares that she doesn’t care if she ever knows what happened but the film certainly won’t let it rest; there are two endings too many. Editor Ryo Hayano could have used a freer hand, but cinematographer Atsuhiro Nabeshima makes the most of still, tranquil images to suggest misery just below the surface.

The Promised Land is sadly weighed down by some bizarre sexual politics, chiefly in the form of Tsugumi’s high school admirer Hiro (Nijiro Murakami), who slashes her bike tire to ensure she can’t ride home, and later admits it after some light stalking and an attempted kiss. This is supposed to be charming? On top of that, when Hiro falls ill later it seems as though we’re supposed to feel bad for him.

Still, Zeze has a welcome knack for picking at societal scabs and forcing us to pay attention to them, and he has a strong cast to help him make his point. It’s almost impossible for Sato (Unforgiven), with his wounded, lonely intensity, and Emoto, making the most of his world-weary eyes, to be anything less than empathetic. Reiko Kataoka as a local widow is a pleasant surprise, making the character's relatable anxiousness about starting a romance as a fortysomething single mother achingly palpable.

Production company: Kadokawa Daiei Studio

Cast: Go Ayano, Hana Sugisaki, Koichi Sato, Akira Emoto, Reiko Kataoka, Asuka Kurosawa, Nijiro Murakami

Director: Takahisa Zeze

Screenwriter: Takahisa Zeze, based on the novel by Shuichi Yoshida

Producer: Naohiko Ninomiya, Kazunari Hashiguchi, Hidehisa Chiwata

Executive producer: Shinichiro Inoue

Director of photography: Atsuhiro Nabeshima

Production designer: Toshihiro Isomi

Editor: Ryo Hayano

Music: Joep Beving

World sales: Kadokawa

Venue: Busan International Film Festival

In Japanese

No rating, 128 minutes