Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Candidate for best international rom-com crime caper: Uchida Kenji's smashing KEY OF LIFE

"I think this is the most sophisticated, most enjoyable Asian movie I've ever seen," noted my spouse after we'd watched -- me for the second time, he for the first -- KEY OF LIFE, the new film from Japanese writer/director Uchida Kenji, that makes its DVDebut from Film Movement today. And though I have seen many more Asian films that has the spouse, I suspect he's close to correct about both the sophistication and enjoyment levels on display in this remarkable movie.

At its heart, the film's a romantic comedy, as we immediately know from scene one, a subdued knock-out in which our heroine, a magazine editor, tells her staff that she plans to be married within the next couple of months, then asks them to alert her if they if they know any possible grooms. From there, we meet a depressed, out-of work actor, along with a very accomplished hit man.

Mr. Uchida, shown at right, has concocted here a simply glorious and grand situation -- one that is also quite smart because it actually allows for legitimate growth and change. And though our filmmaker uses, of course, elements we've seen countless times before -- woman seeking man, switched identities, murder most foul -- he puts them together in ways that make this all seem fresh and new.

How? I'll tell you. He focuses on character above all else, understanding that what makes up this character is the combination of actions coupled to history. All this may not seem immediately apparent, so surprising and/or funny and/or strange and/or shocking is the movie's first half hour. As the tale unfolds and grows even odder, however, who these three people are becomes increasingly urgent and meaningful -- to them and to us.

It is this strong sense of character -- so utterly specific, real and right -- that Uchida has bestowed upon each of his three personalities that not only trumps all events but actually makes these events, crazy as they get, absolutely believable. This, to my mind, is a fabulous accomplishment, and the particular combination of expert conception, smart execution and detailed acting keeps the tale growing and resonating like crazy.

In the role of the no-nonsense editor, Hirosue Ryôko (shown above, right) of Departures is simply lovely. Graceful, restrained, yet sometimes utterly hilarious, she nails this character completely. Likewise, Kagawa Teruyuki (below) as our hit man. To watch him struggle quietly with lack of memory and what this does to character is to exult in a kind of master class in acting.

As fine as these two are, even better is the lost young man at the center if it all, Sakurai, played with a piquant combination of confusion, desperation, apology and spirit by Sakai Masato (below and at bottom). It's Sakurai who needs to grow the most, and watching Mr. Sakai manage this was, for me, one of the great pleasures of my movie-going year.

Key of Life has some great fun with acting, filmmaking and role-playing, too, and it has clever surprise or two in store along the way. There is also a particularly well-earned, feel-good finale (two of them, actually, so do watch the end credits or you'll miss the second one). Shockingly enough, the film runs over two hours, yet the fact that it seems to fly by adds yet one more feather to this filmmaker's cap. 

This movie, a must-see for anyone who appreciates a rom-com with smarts, makes its DVDebut today, Tuesday January 7, from Film Movement, where you can stream it now or purchase the DVD (or both). It's also available to purchase via Amazon or to stream via Netflix -- but not until January 31. So stick it in your Netflix queue now.

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