Movie Review – Under the Fence (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something pleasant and worthwhile from director Nobuhiro Yamashita. Plus YU AOI!!

REVIEW: Director Nobuhiro Yamashita is a director whose work I have followed recently and all of his work that I have seen so far, I have enjoyed. La La La at Rock Bottom was a fantastic comedy/drama with two stellar lead performances (FUMI NIKAIDO!!), while Linda Linda Linda is a favourite of mine, with its realistic portrayal of high school life, lovable performances, its understated humour and a rocking soundtrack.

So when I heard that Yamashita was making a film that had Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi as the leads, I was psyched beyond belief. So does Over the Fence reach…over the fence?

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Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) is dumped by his wife (Yuka) and goes back to his hometown of Hakodate. With nowhere to go in life, he attends at a vocational school, learning carpentry for unemployment benefits. At the vocational school, he meets Kazuhisa (Shota Matsuda) and the two become friends.

One day, Kazuhisa takes him to a nightclub for a business proposal and a night on the town. There, Yoshio meets a hostess, Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Endearingly spirited as well as having a strange affinity for the behaviour of animals, Yoshio gradually becomes attracted to her and the two start a relationship. But with complications like troubled pasts and troublesome events at the school, will Yoshio and Satoshi get together in the end?

From the looks of the synopsis, director Nobuhiro Yamashita is back to what he does best, which is portraying the life of the lower-class like in films like The Drudgery Train and Ramblers. But in the case of Over the Fence, the story is a bit more downbeat and depressing, in terms of its themes. That is most likely due to the source material by Yasushi Sato, who also wrote the source material for The Light Shines Only There.

But unlike that film, Yamashita executes the storytelling with an understated, yet assured touch. The revelations, dramatic beats, the lack of a musical score all point out that the film is aiming for more of a realistic yet contemplative vibe, rather than a melodramatic vibe. Not only does it make the storytelling more immersive, but it also gives the drama a much-needed punch when the conflicts arise.

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The actors inhabit their roles really well and adapt their performances with the understated storytelling really well. Joe Odagiri has been playing these type of laid-back characters for years to the point that he could do it in his sleep. In Over the Fence, he does it again, but he still does it well and he makes it easy to believe that his character is a slacker.

As for Yu Aoi, her character is a much more complex role that could have been borderline irritating, but she nails it. Not only does she make her character believable and sympathetic, her star-quality charisma makes her character immensely likable. Her impressions of animal behaviour deliver belly-laughs. Odagiri and Aoi have an endearing chemistry and Yamashita brings out the best out of them in terms of dramatic intensity. With Aoi, it comes to no surprise but for Odagiri, it’s nice to see him being pushed in terms of his acting chops.

The supporting cast all do great with their roles as well, even adding life to their minimal screen-time. Shinnosuke Mitsushima is quietly intense as bullying victim, Mori, while Shota Matsuda does well as the lothario/salesman, Daishima. Yuka makes a big impression as Yoshio’s ex-wife, in her minimal screen-time, conveying the pain of her character convincingly.

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Despite the potentially depressing storyline, director Yamashita still has time to fit in his whimsical humour that made his past films enjoyable. Besides the animal impressions that Aoi does, there are some scenes of absurdity like how a child is left on a theme park ride during an argument between the two leads that are quite amusing.

As for flaws, there was a lack of development of Satoshi’s backstory that could’ve been up to par with Yoshio’s backstory and the pacing could have been tightened up a bit, but it is understandable that the story is told this way, seeing that it involves characters slacking through life and its supposedly boring minutiae that people go through. Fortunately, the film ends in a satisfying way that made the film worthwhile.

Over the Fence is another quality hit for director Nobuhiro Yamashita, with great performances from Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi, assured direction from Yamashita, a committed supporting cast and an effective balance of realism and the trademark Yamashita humour. Yu Aoi’s impressions of animals is worth the price of admission.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great leading performances

Subtle, understated direction gives revelations a punch

Sprinkled, whimsical humour offsets the potentially grim story

CONS

Inconsistent backstories

Lack of action within the plot

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Joe Odagiri, Yu Aoi, Shota Matsuda, Yukiya Kitamura, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Takumi Matsuzawa, Tsunekichi Suzuki, Yuka
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Screenwriters: Ryo Takada; based on the novel by Yasushi Sato

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