Real (Riaru: Kanzen naru kubinagaryu no hi): Locarno Review

Real Locarno Film still - H 2013

Real Locarno Film still - H 2013

Tonally problematic psychological drama with a dollop of monster-movie madness.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's adaption of a novel by Rokuro Inui is headlined by rising Japanese stars Takeru Sato and Haruka Ayasa.

LOCARNO -- The fine line between reality and imagination is explored in cerebral and almost Freudian fashion before sliding towards something out of the monster-movie imagination of The Host-director Bong Joon-ho in Real (Riaru: Kanzen naru kubinagaryu no hi), the latest film of Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata).

A very loose adaptation of the novel A Perfect Day for a Plesiosaur by Rokuro Inui, Real explores "sensing," a science-fiction technique used by a young man to enter the mind of his fiancée, a manga artist who became comatose after a suicide attempt. Though it offers a lot of twists over its two-hour running time, Kurosawa struggles to create something that’s tonally coherent, though the finely chiseled performances and carefully lit visuals are always elegant and do rather niftily instill a false sense of security that’ll violently come undone in the final reel.

Too subtle and slow for J-horror buffs and perhaps too genre-defying for fans of psychological dramas such as Kurosawa's Shokuzai — Penance from last year, this item, which played in competition at the recent Locarno Film Festival and will premiere in Toronto as a Special Presentation, should nonetheless benefit from Kurosawa’s brand-name appeal in the international arena.

PHOTOS: 11 Biggest Book-to-Big Screen Adaptations of the Last 25 Years

Atsumi (Haruka Ayase, the blind swordswoman from Ichi) is a young but already famous manga artist who tried to kill herself after a period of creative block, much to the consternation of her devoted boyfriend, Koichi (Takeru Sato, somewhat ironically most famous for headlining the manga adaptation Rurouni Kenshin). Koichi is offered the opportunity to experiment with the sensing technique that makes it possible for him to wander into Atsumi’s subconscious and, hopefully, find out why exactly she wanted to commit suicide and perhaps help her come back to life.

Several sessions of sensing are put into place by the kind but rather detached doctor Dr. Aihara (veteran actress Miki Nakatani, from the original Ring film) and soon elements from Koichi’s real life and the sensing sessions start to blend together, apparently a "side effect" of the treatment.

It all leads back to childhood and the island where Atsumi and Koichi grew up together and where Koichi even manages to see his mother (Kurosawa regular Kyoko Koizumi, in a throwaway cameo) in a sensing session. He’s also there to look for the drawing of a plesiosaur that Atsumi gave to him as a child and which was “perfect.” However, the screenplay, by Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, doesn’t manage to foreshadow or even properly explain the importance of the drawing, which turns out to be the key to the film’s finale. Ditto the way in which the film seems to glance over Atsumi’s mangas, which could have helped to suggest what's in store in terms of themes and tone later on in the film.

STORY: Locarno Fest Gives Top Prize to Eerie 'Story of My Death'

Instead, there’s an out-of-left-field reveal that turns the eerily hushed, psychologically-inclined sci-fi film on its head plot-wise but which makes some of what has come before seem either unlikely or unnecessary. The closing reel, with its combination of violence, special effects and child-like wonder, does feel particularly Japanese and offers a sense of closure even if it is very murkily motivated (an attempt at Psychoanalysis 101 is shoehorned in at the last minute).

Production values are high, especially the couple’s eerily neat apartment dreamt up by production designer Takeshi Shimizu, which undergoes some spooky yet preternaturally calm transformations during the sensing sessions. Visual effects are occasionally intentionally low-grade, to suggest that reality and the subconscious are blending into each other.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Twins Japan, TBS
Cast: Takeru Sato, Haruka Ayase, Miki Nakatani, Joe Odagiri, Shota Sometani, Keisuke Horibe, Kyoko Koizumi
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriters: Hiromi Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka, screenplay based on the based on the novel
A Perfect Day for a Plesiosaur by Rokuro Inui
Producers: Takashi Hirano, Atsuyuki Shimoda
Executive producer: Hideki Tashiro
Director of photography: Akiko Ashizawa
Production designer: Takeshi Shimizu
Music: Kei Haneoka
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Editor: Takashi Sato
Sales: TBS - Tokyo Broadcasting System
No rating, 127 minutes.