EXPECTATIONS: Something along the lines of life-like fantasy films like Hana & Alice and Love Letter.
REVIEW: I’ve been a Shunji Iwai fanatic for a long time and I do not want to repeat myself over and over like in my other reviews about how I had my first experience of his films so I’ll just get on with this review. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is Shunji Iwai’s first live-action Japanese theatrical release since 2004’s Hana & Alice. That time gap alone was a really long wait (with Iwai’s 2011 English-language debut, Vampire not sufficing much) and it seems that Iwai has found a new muse with incredible rising talent Haru Kuroki (who eerily reminds me of Iwai’s other muse, Yu Aoi) and others like Go Ayano (too many films to mention) and Cocco (a revelation in Shinya Tsukamoto’s 2011 drama, Kotoko) for the film. Will A Bride of Rip Van Winkle be a fantastic return-to-form (live-action) or will be a bloated disappointment?
Nanami (Haru Kuroki) is a timid and gullible part-time junior high school teacher, whose only sense of peace comes from connecting with others on Planet, a new social media platform similar to FaceBook. One day, looking like a lost girl in a deep sea of people, a young man named Tetsuya (Go Jibiki) messages her and asks to meet in person. The two begin dating and in a blink of an eye, they become engaged. When Tetsuya begs Nanami to increase her guest list for the wedding, Nanami reaches out to online-friend, Amuro (Go Ayano), a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, who hires actors to play Nanami’s guests on her big day. A few weeks following the ceremony, Tetsuya’s mother confronts Nanami with allegations of lying and cheating. Heartbroken and despondent, Nanami checks herself into a hotel and manages to get hired there as a maid. One day, Amuro offers Nanami a housekeeping job in an old mansion, whose sole resident’s infectious spirit helps Nanami to open her heart. However, Nanami soon realizes that Amuro, the mansion, and its occupant aren’t what they seem.
Boy, was this an unexpected emotional ride! This movie was very little of what I expected and it might actually be the reason why I liked this movie so much. Apart from 2015’s animated prequel, The Murder Case of Hana and Alice, the twelve-year gap between his last Japanese live-action film and the present time must have had an effect on him because A Bride of Rip Van Winkle is Iwai’s most cynical and cruel film since 2001’s All About Lily Chou-Chou. And despite all of its dark moments (one scene involving Nanami meeting the husband of her husband’s lover was downright disturbing), the film is really a huge subversion of Iwai’s soulful fantasy-like films like Hana & Alice and Love Letter. The typical-Iwai (lots of soft focus and sun flares) cinematography of Chigi Kanbe and the music by Mako Kuwabara certainly plays off of the film’s events and manipulating the audience of what to expect.
As much as torturous as Nanami’s fall from grace is and also including the many role-plays of Amuro’s fraudulent schemes, there is a striking beauty that Iwai finds beneath the surface. With its hopelessly romantic and deceitful characters in increasingly surreal situations (like Nanami working as a maid in a giant mansion for a brooding master) that would not be out of place in a Twin Peaks episode, it is surprising that Iwai manages to find something remarkably human out of it; particularly in its exploration of human relationships. Alongside the beauty, there is also a surprisingly ample amount of tension as the audience is mulling at how the motives of Amuro and other characters fit into the story and how it will pay off.
Like all of Iwai’s films, there are many small details littered throughout the film that seem random and meaningless (in the case of Winkle, many involving social media), but they all payoff in various ways. For example, the title of the film is actually referring to a character in the film via the account name on Planet. What is the significance of the name? The ending of the film answers that question cleverly. The element of social media in the story (which is reminiscent of the message board element of All About Lily Chou-Chou) also adds commentary and power to the character relationships; especially when you compare Nanami’s relationship with Tetsuya (which was conceived through social media) and her relationship with Mashiro (Cocco), which is portrayed really well without looking fake or prurient; or how Nanami’s use of the social media platform, Planet, is basically a safe haven for her as she is assuming another identity.
None of this would work without its rising young talent. Haru Kuroki (whom I really enjoyed in When the Curtain Rises and The Little House) is convincingly timid, yet likable and relatable enough to care for, even through her most questionable decisions which might irk the audience. I really hope she gets more leading roles (her role in Rises is a complete 180 from Winkle). Go Ayano is compellingly enigmatic as Amuro, whose motives involving Nanami are shrouded in mystery until the end. It is thanks to Go’s charisma and Iwai’s direction that we want his character to be good-natured but the film’s story always alters our perception of him. As the new friend that Nanami befriends, Cocco proves her acting debut in Kotoko was no fluke, as she easily conveys her character’s maverick attitude and enthusiasm with aplomb. Alongside Amuro’s character reveal, her character’s eventual reveal is also satisfyingly dealt with subtlety, as Cocco portrays her pain and anguish like a pro. As good as Kuroki is, both Ayano and Cocco have the best moments in the film and give the film a lot of vibrancy.
But with the small details that Iwai is known for, they do drag the film at times, especially when the running time is 3 hours. The running time especially drags during the first act, with major scenes like Nanami’s wedding taking too much time. Plus, the character of Nanami may annoy some with her cutesy voice and her indecisiveness that may be seen as either stupidity or neurosis. Plus, the direction can be a bit cloying and insistent at times, since it reiterates the point that we are meant to be sympathetic of Nanami’s plight, like the usage of music and slow-motion.
But other than those two flaws, I really see no objection for this movie not to be
wed seen by Iwai fans or those looking for a unorthodox relationship drama. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is Iwai coming outside the box and it was a moving, suspenseful and richly rewarding film that I hope that it doesn’t take another decade for him to make a live-action film.
P.S – The film was also released in a 2 hour cut in various countries, but in my opinion, that is a lot of lost material that could potentially undermine the journey, if not the destination the film reaches.
Shunji Iwai’s direction taking different directions
Production values are above reproach
Exploration of the story’s themes is thought-provoking
Long running time
The character of Nanami may annoy some
Cast: Haru Kuroki, Go Ayano, Cocco, Go Jibiki, Hideko Hara, Soko Wada, Tomoko Mariya, Akio Kaneda, Ririi.
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai, based on his own book of the same name