An exquisitely filmed downer from Japan, which may be mistaken for a cautionary tale on the ways of today’s wayward youth. A few hints show this to be a scene set in the 90s, like the absence of cell phones and a reference to going to see a Flipper’s Guitar concert in Shibuya. But this drama about adolescents with experiences way beyond their age shares some common themes with other tragic Japanese tales of teenagers (including one in this year’s lineup, LIVERLEAF, which falls short of RIVER’S EDGE): classrooms run by the kids where teachers are all but absent, intense clique-forming and bullying of individuals, parents mostly in the dark about their children’s social lives. There are scenes of sexual aggressions, drug use, and violence that are quite difficult to bear. So too are the main figures’ impassiveness at all that takes place around them. Every so often ire is raised, mostly that of Haruna, the loosely connected group’s central figure (played by an always fascinating Fumi Nikaido whose languid expressions are easy to get lost in). They can be accused of being vapid characters, written to lack depth. But the film is interesting in its way of cataloguing their trials with an air of neutrality, holding back from casting judgment. It feels like we are viewing these situations from the teenaged protagonists’ untaught and in many ways damaged points of view. It is apparent that, as coolly as they may react, these trials are more than they are equipped to day deal with. Their lack of change begins to feel like a condition of being trapped in their roles, and this makes it possible to empathize. While its cataloging of brutality feels merciless, it is beholden of a strange beauty; definitely worth viewing.
RIVER’S EDGE is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Tuesday, July 3, at 9:15 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.
This singular drama from Japan opens over a somber landscape in a quiet coastal town. It holds many provincial features, such as a festival meant to appease an evil spirit carried on year after year by an alarmingly superstitious populace, and a tendency for gossip. Tsukisue, a civil servant is sent to pick up 6 individuals and bring them into town. He is also charged with helping them integrate into their surroundings. Soon after, we learn that this is part of a social experiment; the new arrivals are inmates serving time for violent crimes, their sentences commuted so that they can be rehabilitated in a new environment. This sets the stage for a story rife with moral and philosophical conundrums, to be debated and explored.
While the unwitting official is left with responsibility over the lives of the ex-convicts (which proves to be a varied group), he also deals with relationship woes, magnified by the suffocating small town atmosphere. In all, he has quite a lot on his shoulders.
If the premise sounds as though it would make for a great mini-series, extended over several episodes, we are on the same page. In fact it is based on a manga, a format perfect for stories to sprawl outwards. And with all of the potential character interactions laid out, sprawl is exactly what the story should do. While off to a promising start, things begin to line up a little too conveniently. Characters take on developments or newfound interests that seem rather abrupt. It as though a linear conclusion is being raced toward, with all of those moral intricacies crumbling away to carve a path.
While the development of story does not satisfy through and through, there are aspects of it, in addition from its potential-laden premise, that are praiseworthy. Sound design, credited to Tatsuo Yamaguchi, is used to great effect. At times, electronic effects plod forebodingly. There is something akin to big drops of water falling into deep wells and causing ripples of foreboding that disrupt the calm. Then there are the jams forged by Tsukisue and his two friends, who reform a noise rock trio from their past to practice. (this would not be the first time that reliving or recalling one’s former band as a way to reconnect with the past surfaces as a theme in the festival) They forge propulsive sonic rumbles, something like a therapeutic cleansing of the air around them. While Scythian Lamb doesn’t hit the mark completely from beginning to end, it has enough going for it to make it interesting viewing.
THE SCYTHIAN LAMB is being screened at 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Thursday, July 5, at 9:15 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.