‘Love Life’ Review: Koji Fukada’s Heartfelt and Soppy Drama

Even the strongest marriages can be strained and broken by the death of a child. For beautiful and wholesome Japanese couple Taeko and Jiro, however, this tragedy shows all the flaws that were already in their young relationship, and that’s before the living ghosts of the past appear for both partners. Koji Fukada’s “Love Life” unabashedly embraces melodramatic artifice in its examination of modern, middle-class love tested as much by social prejudice as by personal demons; he simply does it with such a pale and polite reserve that his sentimentality never becomes transcendent. As such, this enjoyable but overly long image shows that the Japanese writer-director is still struggling to find the form of his 2016 Cannes award winner “Harmonium.”

This film was an exercise in disorienting tonal contrast and conflict, with a vein of dark, bloody comedy running through some seriously tragic events. “Love Life,” on the other hand, is a serious, largely humorless affair: while it’s impossible not to be affected on some level by the hellish predicament of its characters, the prevailing sweetness of tone here tends towards the vaporous. Worthy performances and assured, understated craftsmanship allow the film to achieve a satisfying enough resolution, but this Venice competition entry may not have the impact needed to secure widespread arthouse distribution. .

The opening scenes establish an early sense of the domestic placidity and low emotional distance that mark the relationship between Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and Jiro (Kento Nagayama) in the neat little apartment they share in a Japanese coastal town. Their respective routines tend to converge on Keita (Tetta Shimada), six-year-old Taeka’s bright and heartbreaking son from a previous relationship: Although Jiro is a kind father to the boy, the question of his parentage seems like a other territorial division between spouses who do not fully share their lives.

Jiro’s parents Makoto (Tomorowo Taguchi) and Akie (Misuzu Kanno) live in the same building, but it’s also not quite the comfortable arrangement it seems: Makoto never approved of the his son’s marriage to a divorced mother, and the limits of their cordiality begin to show during the family birthday party which begins. The day will get much worse, however, when Keita suddenly dies in an all-too-conceivable household mishap – which unfolds, partially visible, in the space of a single static shot thoughtfully framed by Fukada and DP Hideo Yamamoto. Within minutes, the most important family bond is severed, immediately throwing the living and the bereaved adrift.

Fukada dramatizes the immediate aftermath of the event with a believable and suitably banal delicacy: “Love Life” is best at negotiating periods of tense, not-quite-simpatico silence, such as when Jiro tries to guess whether or not to remove the party decorations that now accidentally mark Keita’s death, or a shocked Taeko tries to choose photos for a memorial slideshow. Things take a less convincing turn with the arrival of Park (Atom Sunada), Taeko’s former deaf Korean, who crashes the funeral to punch her in the face.

It’s a rare abrasive action in a film of silent words and deeds; it also never quite rings true, either in the moment or as we learn more about Taeko’s relationship and breakup with Park, who has been homeless for some time. Charitably remedying her misfortune becomes Taeko’s healing distraction from her grief, while Jiro, in a somewhat too symmetrical turn of events, rekindles his acquaintance with his ex. (Always hovering just short of his partner’s feelings, and never quite asserting his own, Nagayama deftly tries out the trickiest part here.) While Kimura and Sunada both give suitably bruised individual performances, in collaboration, they never exactly convince us that Taeko and Park once shared a soul connection.

It seems less intentional than the figurative glass wall separating Taeko and Jiro – which at least gives the slightly pale love triangle that ensues a quiver of uncertainty. No pair of characters seem quite on the same page until the film’s elegantly sustained closing shot, as two people simply stroll through suburban streets and squares before disappearing into the distance, the stumps opalescent notes of Akiko Yano’s English song “Love Life” replacing their inaudible and distant dialogue. “No matter how far apart we are, nothing can stop me from loving you”, she sings – if the Fukada’s film is sometimes as cutesy as these lyrics, but it nevertheless suggests that the love here can be a bit more conditional and complicated than that.

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