I didn't lunge for the off button or anything, but I wouldn't really recommend it. It's sincere, but it drifts.
The problem, if it's fair to call it that, is that Tran Anh Hung has his own approach to movies. They're languid. They're not worried about plotting. They're like an impressionistic half-remembered echo of a story, in which what's important are mood and patience. This time though he's adapting a Haruki Murakami novel that was a huge hit with Japanese youth when it came out and made Murakami (to his dismay) something of a superstar in Japan.
These things do not belong together. Tran Anh Hung as I know him will never appeal to a mass audience. I don't think it's in him. He makes art movies that make you nostalgic for eras you never knew and Far Eastern countries you've never visited. I haven't read the novel myself, but it sounds as if he's missed out significant chunks of story and the novel's fans tend to say things like, "If you haven't read the book, you wouldn't be able to appreciate the movie in a way it is meant to be appreciated. But if you have, you are bound to be disappointed."
It's about a boy (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) whose best friend (Kengo Kora) commits suicide. The film never explains this. Matsuyama decides to move to an area where no one knows him, but some time later Kora's girlfriend (Rinko Kikuchi) shows up and shows signs of being emotionally damaged. Matsuyama is a fairly serious lad, but he's still got enough of a sex life that he's capable of trying to help and support the needy, fragile Kikuchi without apparently feeling any need to get into her knickers. This is a good thing because if he were, he'd have blue balls. She ends up committing herself to an institution in the mountains. Meanwhile Matsuyama's other acquaintances include a serial shagging psychopath (Tetsuji Tamayama) and a girl (Kiko Mizuhara) whose conversation tends to involve masturbation, sex fantasies involving Matsuyama and going to see a porn movie with him. I believe there was more to Mizuhara's character in the novel.
It's a stylish film, sometimes to a fault. It lacks the heady richness of Tran Anh Hung's Vietnam, but that's because Vietnam is an exotic tropical paradise. This film is more austere. It's set in the 1960s, with (ironically) Vietnam protests and a protagonist who's not particularly well off and keeps himself fed by doing dull-looking part time work in between his studies. However the seasons are well evoked, such as the cicada hum and the big fish in shallow water that speak of summer. Later, there's lots of snow. Winter closes in for the film's third act.
The music is intrusive. Tran Anh Hung doesn't use it much, but when he does, it's sufficiently attention-grabbing that you might be relieved when it stops. Meanwhile he also shows a fondness for the Walking Conversation, in which a perfectly normal discussion is played with the characters walking around each other and never having a meeting of eyelines. This isn't helping the actors, as is the differently obscuring scene where Kikuchi has a breakdown in the dark.
Some elements are almost thrown away. What was Matsuyama doing with his hand injury? His sniffing made me wonder if it was getting infected, but then the film forgets about it. Also, the death of someone's father is barely a hiccup in the story, popping up briefly without being allowed to disrupt the general serenity.
That said, there's good stuff here as well. Unsurprisingly, there's depth. It feels like a female exploration of sexuality, to such a marked extent that I was half-expecting the original novel to have been written by a woman. The men are sex objects, albeit sometimes predatory ones. They service their women and don't really have anything complicated going on, whereas the female characters all have far richer and more peculiar motivations. There are four women here, each of whom has a completely different relationship with sexual intimacy.
You'll also be hypnotised by Tamayama's girlfriend (Eriko Hatsune), who gets the most dramatic material in the film. Most of the performances are good, with all the women being strong and Kikuchi being, as expected, the standout. In real life she's a fearless lady who's not afraid to have a spiky relationship with the entire Japanese movie industry and in 2006 became the first Oscar-nominated Japanese actress in half a century, but here she creates a subtly fluttering fragility that's far more watchable than the film's weak link with whom she's sharing the screen. That would be Matsuyama. Unfortunately he's the main character. I'm not a fan, I'm afraid. I approve of the fact that he goes for strange character roles, but so far I haven't yet been convinced by what he does with them. I wasn't wild about his L in the live-action Death Note
films and here he's not really doing much with the central role. I liked his deadpan in his first scene with Mizuhara, though.
In fairness, the film's not giving him much to play with. As if in a drab, joyless harem anime, Matsuyama's playing a bland straight man who's less interesting than his eccentric women. That was always going to be challenging. However it's his job as an actor to give us reasons to watch this dour, stoic lead character and I don't think he succeeded.
I remember this film being released commercially in cinemas in London, but there are any number of Japanese films I'd have chosen ahead of it. The recognisable names (Tran Anh Hung, Haruki Murakami, Rinko Kikuchi) would have been a key selling point, I'm sure. However that said, it's not bad. It's quite good, if you're patient. There are plenty of other Japanese films that move this slowly and take a similar "throw a stone in a pond" approach to storytelling. It even made me laugh every so often, which always surprised me since it generally comes across as po-faced. Kikuchi's tall story about Matsuyama is funny, for instance, as is Mizuhara's definition of love as strawberry shortcake.
It's what you'd expect of Tran Anh Hung, really, but perhaps a bit chillier. That's partly Matsuyama and partly the snow.