Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Responsibility--and the refusal to accept it--hangs over Kôji Fukada's HARMONIUM

Another day, another movie -- the moral of which is the great lesson that Donald Trump (among so many of us but the most damaging/damning example) seems unable and/or unwilling to learn: Accept responsibility for your actions. (The popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is chock-a-block with this: It hovers over nearly every character and every event.)

HARMONIUM, the new film from Japanese writer/director Kôji Fukada forces us to view and then ponder the results of the decision not to accept that responsibility -- in a manner that grows ever more awful and encompassing as the film moves inexorably toward full-out darkness. That the movie is beautifully composed and shot, written and acted with subtlety and grace, makes the end result all that much more unnerving.

Mr. Fukada, pictured at left, sets us up with, I am guessing, a rather typical Japanese family -- mom, dad and cute little daughter, in their home, which doubles as dad's workplace. We get a good sense of their life, with mom and daughter relatively happy and dad rather distant and preoccupied. Probably just that typical male-at-work thing, right? Not quite. Then one day, a man from dad's past appears, an old "friend" who has recently been released from prison and needs a little help. From what we learn at this point, guilt as much as kindness, account for dad's allowing his old friend, Yasaka, to work with him and move into a spare room in the family's quarters.
That friend is played by the consummate Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano (above and on poster, top, from Bright Future, Ichi the Killer, Café Lumière) and he comes to control this movie just as he finally does both the family and the further events that transpire.

Our anti-hero seems to be both philosophical and caring, two things that have clearly eluded the world of the father, but as we will learn, Yasaka has his own agenda to follow. He is also much more charismatic and attractive than Dad, which both Mom and daughter note with pleasure.

Yasaka even helps the little girl with her harmonium lessons. Practicing for an upcoming recital, she changes her recital piece to a song Yasaka plays for her and that begins to figure ever more hauntingly as the movie continues.

How the plot develops -- it is cut in two by the film's major event -- spans nearly a decade and introduces a new character whom we also come to appreciate and understand. And while the tale darkens and deepens considerably, it never loses any of the odd ambiguity that has been there all along.

Finally, it is difficult not to identify with all these protagonists, including Yasaka, at the same time as we recoil at what happens to them. And all because of that failure to accept one's responsibility.

Performances are on the mark, with rather amazing change, in particular in the characterization of the mother, played so well and so differently from first half to second, by Mariko Tsutsui (above).

As Dad, Kanji Furutachi (above) is the very picture of a stunted man, corralled by his choices and so unable to grow. The rest of the small cast is fine, too, especially the two actresses who play the daughter, as well as the young man who essays the role of son in the second half.

From Film Movement, in Japanese with English subtitles and running exactly two hours, Harmonium opens this Friday, June 16, in New York City, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  In the Los Angeles area, look for it on Friday, July 7, at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. Click here (then scroll down) to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

No comments: