It's a quiet, mostly gentle drama, but it's dealing with dark subject matter. Furthermore its plot is idiosyncratic. It's happy to introduce apparently important characters, only to discard them and move on to something completely new. I couldn't see where the story was going. I tried to get a handle on what Sakamoto was talking about and eventually I started to put together some ideas, but there's an embracing of ambiguities and contradictions here that makes for an unusually subtle film. It reaches a suitable finale and then continues past it, only to end with one foot in the air.
In other words, I liked it but it made an art form out of making me go "eh?"
Its protagonist is Naomi Fujiyama, a fat, plain woman with underdeveloped social skills and a complicated relationship with her attractive sister (Riho Makise). Admittedly Makise's a bitch, but Fujiyama is a passive, vaguely hostile creature with paradoxical reactions and almost no people skills. She's bad at saying thank you, or even at acknowledging your existence. Makise's working as a hostess in a bar and only comes home to leech off her family, whereas Fujiyama lives with her elderly mother and spends all her days sewing for their dry cleaning business. Has she ever had a boyfriend? You must be joking. She doesn't seem to be miserable, but you couldn't exactly say she has a fulfilling life.
Anyway, this complicated relationship with Makise goes somewhere surprising, after which Fujiyama has to leave home in a hurry. I'd been worrying why the film was taking such care to underline the fact that this was January 1995, but that's because I'd forgotten about the Great Hanshin Earthquake at that time which killed over 6000 people in Kobe. This earthquake saves Fujiyama by turning the world upside-down and distracting the police.
After that, we're simply following her.
The tone is unusual. It's a gentle film that often made me laugh, but we're following a dour protagonist with a pretty hopeless-looking future. It's optimistic, yet downbeat. Fujiyama is rude to strangers and uninterested in finding work to support herself, even to the extent of running away from people who offer it to her. She attempts suicide. She's grateful to rapists. (No, I'm not kidding. However on the other hand it doesn't play out how you're probably imagining.) However she's put herself out in the big wide world and whether she likes it or not she's going to find herself interacting with other people, some of whom will surprise her and help her learn things she didn't know about herself. She's strong-willed. She's not actually cruel and she's capable of doing (or wanting to do) unexpected things. In summary she's a fascinating character, especially since this kind of person isn't usually the protagonist of a movie.
The themes are rich, dark and complicated. Fujiyama at one point says she likes people who are wrong. There's a lot of death and loss in this movie, with a lot of the cast losing or having lost a child, a parent or a younger sibling. Maybe they've lost their job, or in some way their identity. There's also a lot of suicide and attempted suicide if you look for it. You can find all kinds of thematic parallels with Fujiyama in other characters, such as for instance the ex-yakuza who's abandoned his life of crime and is coming back home to be with his sister. Fujiyama accidentally introduces herself to him by kicking his bag in the street and walking on without even acknowledging it, by the way. Not a good move.
There's also a theme of rebirth and reincarnation. "I thought you'd be reborn." Fujiyama herself metaphorically dies and is reborn more than once. Remember those suicide attempts I mentioned?
Nevertheless this is an optimistic film and even quite light in tone, despite the material. I certainly wouldn't call it gruelling or anything like that. People are liable to do some ghastly things to themselves or each other, but these might have unexpected consequences and open a new chapter in the story. Unforgiveable deeds are forgiven. Apparently life-changing things might turn out to be trivial, while the things Fujiyama actually admits to wanting can be little or surreal enough that they're funny.
I like what I hear about this director. Just reading his wikipedia page made me want to hunt down his movies. His first two were about boxing and after that he became known for action films focusing on the conflicts between male characters, but his films have also addressed controversial topics. He's taken on postwar Japanese history, the question of national sovereignty and Asian child-trafficking. Face won him the Best Director award from both the Japan Academy and the Yokohama Film Festival, incidentally, to mention just two of an impressive list of other wins and nominations. Admittedly we're only talking about Japanese awards for the Japanese film industry, but even so that's a broad field. Naomi Fujiyama won two Best Actress awards in what I'm sure will have been the role of a lifetime, especially if you bear in mind that the entertainment industry is biased towards the young and beautiful. It also won a Best Screenplay and two Best Film awards.
You'll often see this film being referred to as Kao, which is the untranslated Japanese title. I'd guess this is to differentiate it from all the other films out there called Face. Incidentally I have a feeling that there might be subtleties I haven't plumbed even with the title's meaning, with the obvious two levels being: (a) the fact that she's fat and unattractive, and (b) having to watch out for her face on TV or wanted posters.
I want to say more about this film, but I also wouldn't want to spoil it. It's a film of delicate contradictions. It's unusual and perhaps slightly bewildering, while I've also seen a claim that it's loosely based on a true story. The more I think about it afterwards, the more I realise that I admire it. I'm definitely going to be seeing more Junji Sakamoto movies.