Wednesday, January 31, 2018

With BEFORE WE VANISH, the prolific Kiyoshi Kurosawa has a new film -- one of his best -- opening in theaters

With 48 directorial credits (beginning in 1975), Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose movie, Daguerrotype, only recently opened here, already has another one hitting theaters this week. Better yet, his new alien-invasion-like-you've-never-seen-it sci-fi/thriller/comedy/drama, BEFORE WE VANISH, may well be one of his best ever. More surprising (to TrustMovies, at least) is how very poignant and moving it turns out to be.

Mr. Kurosawa, shown at left, though he has made nearly 50 films, has had only seven of these (to my knowledge) released here in the U.S. Of those, I've found Dagguerrotype the least enthralling and Before We Vanish the most.

The film is a kind of alien-invasion movie as seen through the view of only three of these aliens -- you might call them "scouts" -- whose job it is to assess the human population and gather what information they can from that populace before the real invasion begins and all human life is destroyed.

As directed by Kurosawa with a screenplay adapted (from the play by Tomohiro Maekawa) by the director and Sachiko Tanaka, the movie immediately dumps us into the middle of things as we see a man in a hospital, recovering from an accident and attended by his wife. Concurrently, a young girl comes home from school to suddenly massacre her family and leave some other very odd damage in her wake. A third young man (below, right), wandering the street, picks up a human journalist (below, left) we've only just met to be his "guide."

Yes, these are our three aliens, each of whom has taken over a human body (a nod, without pod, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and it is through them -- along with the several humans with whom they come in contact and interact -- that we come to understand who they are and what they want.  Kurosawa is best-know for his nerve-jangling supernatural thrillers in which much of the scares come via indirection, surprise and sheer creepiness (the perfectly titled Creepy is one of his most effective), but here this talented filmmaker instead uses the scenario to explore another famous sci-fi trope used in films from well prior to the original Blade Runner to its recent woeful follow-up: What does it mean to be human?

For my money Kurosawa and company do the best job so far of bringing this particular theme to grand, moving and even very funny life. The two younger aliens are brought to life well enough that we can glean a good deal of info about their "alien" character, one quite different from the other, and we come to understand and appreciate that cynical human journalist quite well, too.

But the character who really nails this movie belongs to that third alien, the young man (above, left) who we first see in the hospital, along with his human wife (above, center). As a human, prior to his being "taken," our guy was evidently something of a rotter: a caddish player who treated his wife like trash. Now only his very attractive shell is left, inside of which resides a being who wants to learn all it can about humans and their lives.

How this comes to be changes everything, and the journey that our very odd "hero" and his wife take, along with that journalist and a few other hangers-on makes for one of the most unusual, often amusing, and finally utterly moving and thought-provoking trips that alien-invasion movies have so far given us.

Our aliens have the ability, as above, to draw out of us humans the "concepts" they want to understand. Things such as "work" and "play" and, yes, "love." How the removal of such concepts leaves the humans provides some of the more amusing moments in the film, but how these work on the aliens makes for even more confusion and surprise.

Kurosawa has larded his movie with a little gore, violence and action occasionally, yet special effects are kept to a minimum. (Has a small budget ever achieved quite this large a movie?!) What holds us are the ideas and the wonderful subtlety with which the filmmaker works. How well he achieves this can be ascertained by how almost shockingly believable the movie is. You buy it, hook, line and sinker. This is also thanks to the marvelous performances from his well-chosen cast: Masami Nagasawa as the wife, Hiroki Hasegawa as the journalist, and especially Ryûhei Matsuda (above and below) as the alien hubby. Mr. Matsuda has a face that is so beautiful yet vacant and pliable, especially in repose (which it most often is here), that he turns this alien into something quite special.

There's a scene maybe two-thirds along that takes place in a church into which the husband has wandered in order to understand the concept of love. Inside a children's choir is singing, and the priest sits with our guy and tries to explain a few things. This may be one of the most perfectly realized bit of sci-fi wonderment ever seen, and it changes the course of the film. Though the concept may be Christian, I am quite certain both Buddha and Mohammed would appreciate it equally well. Moses? With his stern commandments rather than Jesus' loving beatitudes, maybe not so much. But then the Jews are still waiting for their Messiah. In any case, this is a less a religious movie than a humane one.

I find it odd that, with all the supposed triumph-of-the-human-spirit movies made these days (many of them sentimental, silly hogwash), it would take an alien invasion film to truly (and so quietly!) make this theme resonate.

From NEON's new boutique label SUPER LTD, Before We Vanish opens this Friday, February 2, in New York City at the IFC Center and will then play a number of Alamo Drafthouse theaters throughout the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates and/or to find a theater maybe near you. If you can't find this film in a movie house, at least stick it on your list for future streaming, DVD or Blu-ray viewing. It is simply too good to miss.

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