VIFF 2018: Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

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In keeping the same minute attention to the smallest details of human routine and interaction that so distinguished his intimate 2015 epic Happy Hour, but trapping them within the familiar confines of a romantic comedy, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has created something remarkable, a genre film as alive to the possibilities and contradictions of the human psyche and its dealing with other souls as we’ve seen in some time. It’s certainly the best romantic film since Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, with which it shares a certain surface similarity. But in every important respect it is sui generis, very much its own thing.

Asako and Baku meet-cute at an art gallery. It’s love at first sight, the two are wordlessly drawn together and stay that way for some time, in the pure romance of youth, impervious to the outside world and not only unafraid of death but turned on by its impossibility. Until, one day Baku disappears. Five years later, Asako meets cute again, this time with a young businessman named Ryôhei, who looks exactly like Baku and is played by the same actor (Masahiro Higashide, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish). The bulk of the film tracks their relationship, growing from awkward avoidance to friendship to love with the rhythms of the everyday and in parallel to the romance between their respective best friends. The friends’ antagonistic first meeting over a performance of Chekov, is the best of the films several digressions, with an unexpected natural disaster and an idyllic montage in a fishing weekend providing other highlights.

The inevitable conflict comes in the final third, as Baku returns. If Hamaguchi doesn’t resolve The Case of the Two Bakus (or rather, the Two Asakos, the first crazed with the freedom of youth, the second safe in the benign contentment of maturity) with as much bald-faced ingenuity as Hong did, he can be forgiven. The solution he does find is as emotionally confused and true as real-life. We are unlikely to see a more open and all-embracing film this year.

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VIFF 2018: Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt, 2018)

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A soccer player strides across the field. Beautiful, dumb and happy, he tells us his story in a wide-eyed narration. A Candide lost in a world far too corrupt for his dim intelligence and brilliant soul. In the opening moment we get to see the world, the game, through his eyes. Not one of screaming lunatic fans or hulking, hostile opponents, but of giant fluffy puppies cavorting in slo-mo through cotton candy pink billows of cloud.

Circumstances, as they do, intrude on this perfect, pre-verbal vision of the world as it might be, and our hero, Diamantino, is sent into a tailspin of awareness, first by an encounter with refugees lost at sea, then by the death of his beloved father. Rather than center their film on their naive hero’s growing consciousness, as in, say, Daisy von Scherler-Meyer’s Party Girl, in which club kid Parker Posey grows into an existentialist librarian, directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt instead put poor Diamantino at the center of a complex and farcical conspiracy involving his evil twin sisters, a pair of undercover cops, a Brexit-like campaign (but for Portugal) and a scientist who walks in water and tries to clone our hero (to make the perfect soccer team) but with gender-confounding consequences. His only ally is one of the cops, whom he adopts thinking she is an orphan refugee boy.

The conspiracy plotting is ridiculous, reminding me of the half-assed terrorism sub-plot in the film within the film of Spice It Up at best and the grotesque anti-comedy of Edgar Pêra’s Cinesapiens short at worst. A few of the jokes land, especially when the directors find new uses for familiar musical cues like the “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold or Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”. But the film rarely again reaches the heights of its first few magical moments, yet every time they bring us back to Diamantino and his pure, foolish soul I’m won over again. He’s truly the hero we need in our dumb, degraded, beautiful world.