The film is set during a period of revolutionary upheaval, but Tran does not dwell on context, as if to say that this story transcends all links to broader society. Kenichi Matsuyama plays Watanabe, a bookish student struggling to figure out whether his love of Naoko is born of the need to save her from herself, or whether the suicide of Kizuki (her boyfriend and his best friend) has gifted them with a unique perspective on each other’s fractured emotional state. Much of their anxiety derives from sex, his sense of selfish pleasure-seeking, and her need to explore her own sexual incompetence. Matters get more complex when sex-savvy Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) enters the fray, and Watanabe must weigh up his sense of responsibility against his more base desires.
It’s an unhurried and precise film, but approach it on these terms and you’ll find a sensitive, profoundly perceptive and life-affirming study of what it means to develop a bond with someone else. And as an unblinking portrait of the abject, sometimes self-destructive, almost unendurable distress suffered after the loss of a loved one, the movie recalls no less a masterpiece than Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’.
The performances of the young cast attain an affecting blend of reticence and hope, but it’s Tran’s fastidious technique that nudges the film into the realms of greatness. His prowling Steadicam circles the protagonists from behind curtains and shelves, giving both interior and exterior scenes an added sense of intimacy. His bold use of colour, too, emphasises the volatility of the characters by oscillating between warm browns, fulsome ochres and chilly blues or sharp whites. The swelling Arvo Pärt-like score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood offers subtle hints rather than obvious cues to how we should read these intense situations. But it’s the clever use of Can’s Krautrock tear-jerker ‘Mary, Mary So Contrary’ that best captures the mood of this remarkable and devastating work.