Media Mix, July 5, 2020

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the South Korean Netflix drama series Crash Landing on You. Two of the articles I cited in the column were written by women, who make up the bulk of the Japanese audience for K-dramas. Both writers refer to themselves as feminists, so it struck me at first that they would like such a conventionally sentimental love story, but, in fact, both go out of their way to assert that the series, as one said, “upsets existing gender norms.” For the first half of the series, the female South Korean protagonist, Yoon Se-ri, is stranded in North Korea, so the usual gender dynamic seems to be in play. She has to rely on the strong, stoical army captain, Ri Jeong-hyeok, to keep her safe, and he does so at considerable risk to his life. However, the second half of the series takes place in Seoul, and these traditional roles are reversed. Though Jeong-hyeok has snuck into South Korea to save Se-ri from a devious, ambitious soldier who is planning to kidnap her, it is Se-ri who basically protects Jeong-hyeok, and she also does it at considerable risk to her own life. The two writers point out that Se-ri is already identified as a “strong woman” because she has built a successful company from scratch, though they don’t mention that she was probably able to do this because she is from one of the richest families in South Korea. Similarly, Jeong-hyeok is the scion of one of the most politically powerful families in North Korea. These respective elite positions of the two main characters are exploited constantly throughout the story, so in a way the series doesn’t “upset” gender norms completely because the two lovers are already extraordinary in socioeconomic terms.

But what the two writers want to say is that the love story feels different because it is one that is based on two equals, and it’s obvious they think that this aspect was carefully built into the story, whose main hook, of course, is that the love is forbidden because the two countries our lovers represent are technically at war with each other. Traditionally, K-dramas address social class and what one writer calls “blood taboos,” meaning inter-family strife (including incest). These cliches are, in fact, derided throughout the series by North Korean characters who secretly watch K-dramas and remark on the development of the story they are living through as if it were a K-drama. Crash Landing on You does address social class in both the North and the South, and the blood taboo aspect is also a feature of the plotting, but not in the central love story itself, which is elevated to such a high ideal that Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok become avatars of a romance that transcends not only political limitations, but gender differences as well. In one of the articles, a woman is quoted as saying she enjoys watching it because there’s no sex, which is true. Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok’s love even transcends sex, which may be the most revolutionary thing about the show.

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Review: Blinded by the Light

Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain type often seem perplexed by their affection for his music, which is the opposite of subtle. While the themes hit on complex human connections, the emotions are big, the guitars loud, and the arrangements for the most part reach for hyperbole by default. No one who listens to a Springsteen song adds anything of themselves to it, because there’s already too much of it.

It is this quality of his music that both informs the British coming-of-age movie Blinded by the Light and drags it down. Based on a memoir, the story follows the struggles of Pakistani-British teenager Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) in 1987, during the twilight Thatcher years of unsteady employment and charged cultural confrontation. It’s also a time when shiny new wave music was dominant on the UK charts, undergirded by the menacing postpunk shiver of the dance and rock scenes coming out of the industrial north and poorer quarters of London. The effect of all these forces on suburb-bound Javed is presented indirectly. With his hard-working father (Kulvinder Ghir) suddenly unemployed and on Javed’s ass to make something of himself, the youth turns to poetry as an outlet for his frustrations. As in almost every coming-of-age story, what the protagonist needs is something to fill that empty spot in his soul he doesn’t know exists. Then he meets the more outgoing Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh and a Springsteen fanatic who gives Javed two of the Boss’s albums on cassette, and, as the saying goes, his eyes are opened.

What the movie gets right is Javed’s sense of discovery, that feeling that takes you over as a young person when you hear a song, see a movie, read a book that seems as if it was made with you in mind. And Director Gurinder Chadha wisely dwells on the paradox here: What can a boomer guy from a working class background in Jersey, who himself never held a job in his life, say to a minority kid in late 80s England whose knowledge of the milieu Springsteen is singing about is cursory at best? In essence, Chadha says that none of that makes any difference, which is the beauty of pop music. Javed connects with Bruce on every level. His poetry improves without actually taking any cues from Springsteen. He is purely inspired.

Unfortunately, the story and, more precisely, the delivery of that story is as ham-handed as “Jungleland,” one of Springsteen’s most impassioned productions and which is referenced in a key scene in the film as a kind of central leitmotif. Javed’s metamorphosis into a Springsteen acolyte becomes almost embarrassing — those Bruce fans of a certain type will likely cringe in their seats. He and Roops shout down racist bullies with Springsteeen lyrics. They dance down the street to “Born to Run” and commandeer the school radio station to play all-Bruce all the time. The movie at times feels more like a promotional music video than a narrative film, so even when it veers back on the tracks and addresses Javed’s shakey relationship with his parents and his own post-high school goals, it seems to be striving for something way out of reach. The problem is that Springstreen’s music, his feelings, tend to overwhelm everything that comes into contact with it. The movies doesn’t stand a chance.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Blinded by the Light home page in Japanese

photo (c) BIF Bruce Limited 2019

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Hansen’s disease lawsuit compensation update

In the March 14 installment of Media Mix, I wrote about the new law passed last November to compensate families of Hansen’s Disease patients for the discrimination they faced and still face. As pointed out in the column, the majority of plaintiffs whose successful lawsuit led to the legislation remained anonymous even after the law was passed because, despite the fact that discrimination against Hansen’s patients was outlawed in the mid-90s and the government has admitted that its previous treatment of Hansen’s patients was wrong, prejudice against persons with the disease and their relatives persists throughout large segments of Japanese society.

On June 17, Asahi Shimbun published a feature on the anniversary of the court decision finding in favor of the plaintiffs. Most of the article was given over to an interview with the daughter of Hansen’s patients who participated in the lawsuit anonymously and who still declines to give her name or place of residence to the reporter. The piece points out right at the start that her parents, who are still alive, were isolated when they were first diagnosed and confined to a sanatarium, where they remain to this day, albeit in their own separate abode. The daughter, who is in her 50s, still does not tell others about her parents except for very close friends, of which she has very few, apparently. She emphasizes the fact that a full year after the verdict, which was widely covered in the Japanese press, things haven’t changed for her. She is still reluctant to talk about her past openly.

One of the main reasons for her fear is that internet trolls came out in force following the decision to compensate families, saying that “again, they want to get paid.” Hansen’s patients themselve won compensation in the early 2000s, and now their family members are getting money, a development the trolls find objectionable.

The Asahi article, however, adds little to this aspect of the story and mostly does what I thought the media should do about the issue, which is to contantly, repeatedly report on Hansen’s-related discrimination whenever and wherever it occurs, though in this case the repetitive nature of such a strategy shows its limitations. The woman tells her story in detail — how her parents were sent away when she was only 5, and how she was raised by grandparents who never really told her the exact truth. She was bullied in school because she “had no parents,” and when she did finally find out the full truth after graduating high school (up until then she would only visit her parents briefly during school vacations) her parents told her that she should just tell people they were in prison. The most heartbreaking part of her story involves the mother of a man she was dating who told her she would never allow her son to see her again, though it is not clear if the older woman knew her parents were Hansen’s patients. In any event, she became pregnant by the woman’s son and they married and her mother-in-law never brought up the matter again, but it still hurts the woman to this day.

As a result of the law, each family member of a Hansen’s patient receives between ¥1.3 and ¥1.8 million, even if they did not participate in the lawsuit. The fairly low amount shows that it’s mainly symbolic. The article goes on to say that as of June 5, about 5,400 individuals have applied for the compensation, of which about 2,600 have received it. However, the government estimates that about 24,000 people are eligible for the payment, and the fact that such a small portion has come forward to claim it only goes to show how powerful the fear of being recognized as a Hansen’s patient relative remains. One lawyer who was involved in the case says that, of course, there still may be many eligible people who don’t know about the compensation, which means the media’s reporting on the matter is even more important.

Anyone who is eligible or thinks they are can contact the government at 03-3595-2262, or hoshoukin@mhlw.go.jp.

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Review: Over the Limit

Rhythmic gymnastics is one of only two Olympic sports that are female-specific. Men do not partake, though there are men’s rhythmic gymnastic competitions outside of the Olympics. (Interestingly, it was Japan that developed the sport for males) This identification of the sport with women’s and girls’ bodies and, more significantly, feminine tropes is an important subtext of Polish director Marta Prus’s documentary about the Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun. As with most sports docs, the focus is on how to become a champion, and Prus leads us through the grinding training regimen and the psychological strain of competition. Mamun’s goal is a medal in the 2016 Olympics, likely her last ever, and Prus, whether expectedly or not, captures the athlete during a particularly difficult part of her life. Though immensely talented, Mamun seems distracted and put off by the kind of effort she has been conditioned to understand by the keepers of the sport to be necessary in order to attain greatness, because she’s attained that level of greatness in the past. Maintaining it, however, is a different thing, and what we see, and what Prus insists we see, is how Mamun’s lack of focus and physical incapacities have less to do with the usual issues of aging and overwork than with a loss of will.

In most sports stories, the athlete’s problems are self-determined, but Prus implies, through careful editing, that Mamun’s difficulties are mainly the fault of Irina Viner-Usmanova, the head of the Russian rhythmic gymnastics program. An imposing, imperious older woman who wears ridiculous hats and gets uncomfortably close to her charges when making a point that could just as easily be made from across the room, Viner-Usmanova seems determined to not only make Mamun a top contender but a kind of uber femme. She’s just as strident in her insults about Mamun’s application of eyeliner as she is about the grace of her splits. There’s a theatricality about the woman’s bearing and speech that seems custom-made for a fiction film about the abject cruelty of Olympic preparation. Likewise, Mamun’s rivalry with a younger gymnast, seemingly engineered by the coaches, is something out of Hollywood, especially when you learn that Mamun is coping with the uncertainty of a father undergoing treatment for aggressive cancer. The only sunshine in her life is her boyfriend, but since he spends most of the movie off-camera his appearances add up to nothing more than brief lacunae of comfort.

Unlike Hollywood sports epics, Over the Limit must adhere to what really happened, and viewers may be either perplexed or overwhelmed by the film’s inconclusive ending. It’s as if Prus, disgusted by what she observed and perhaps guilt-ridden by her own contribution to Mamun’s suffering, just gave up. Still, it’s a devastating portrait of a young person pushed to the brink for reasons that have nothing to do with her own desires. “Just do it” in this case just doesn’t cut it.

In Russian. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

Over the Limit home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Telemark 2018

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Review: Honeyland

The story behind the making of this extraordinary documentary is perhaps even more fascinating than the movie itself. Filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska reportedly were looking for a subject in the Republic of North Macedonia and heard about an older woman who still followed the traditional methods for honey-making, which does not require the keeping of bees, but rather relies on finding beehives in the wild and extracting just enough honey so as not to upset the lives of insects. In order to make their film, however, not only did Stefanov and Kotevska have to track down the woman, who lives in a remote valley that can’t be reached by normal transportation most of the year, but they had to follow her up steep mountains and into dense fields. They also had to somehow make camp in her village, which has no running water nor electricity save that supplied by battery.

Most people who watch the movie have no understanding of how such a life can be lived in the 21st century, and this patronizing mindset points up the true meaning of the movie, which is that the idea of sustainability means living as close to nature as possible. Hatidze, the subject of the movie, is not some romantic flower child but someone who struggles with poverty and the ravages of aging. She does what she does to survive and not to make a point. At times the sheer beauty of the photography feels almost condescending, since it might make some viewers mistake Hatidze’s life for an idyll. But Stefanov and Kotevska know what they’re doing. For every gold-kissed sunset and miraculous uncovering of a busy, teeming, dripping honeycomb there are scenes of Hatidze struggling to feed her elderly, unwell mother in their tiny hovel; or taking the long ride to Skopje to sell her wares so as to make whatever money she needs to get by; or sitting in the dark with only a candle, discussing why she never married and whether her life, and death, has any meaning.

But the most effective means to their thematic end is the filmmakers’ contrasting Hatidze’s life with that of a family who has moved into the village to raise cattle, an occupation that is, by definition, unsustainable, at least in the way they go about it. The family, lorded over by a blustering, mostly imcompetent partriarch named Ljutvie, is merely trying to make as much money in as short a time as possible, and their impatience feels egregious when compared to Hatidze’s careful way of going about her own business. There’s an uncomfortable tension between her and Ljutvie that adds dramatic import to a film about living as responsibly on the earth as possible. And the most edifying, and satisfying, aspect of this contrast is that Hatidze knows that it’s responsible, because she knows what she’s doing (her understanding of bee behavior is complete and intimate) and can see how Ljutvie’s ranching efforts are possibly interfering with her work. Honeyland has been praised for its gorgeous depiction of a harsh lifestyle that will soon be gone, but, more importantly, it’s a film that tells us without sentimentality how to live.

In Turkish, Macedonian and Serbo-Croation. Now playing in Tokyo at Uplink Shibuya (03-6825-5503).

Honeyland home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Trice Films

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Review: Thunder Road

Jim Cummings’ debut feature comes across as a piece of performance art extended beyond its original parameters, and surprisingly it works at that level consistently throughout its 90 minutes. Extrapolated from an award-winning short subject that has been reconstituted as an opening one-take gambit, the movie feels like a tightrope act, which is why you keep expecting it to fail in a big, dramatic way, but it keeps you going, and that’s because Cummings, who directs, writes, and plays the central character, seems to know exactly what he’s doing every second of the movie.

In the first scene, Jim Arnaud (Cummings), a skinny policeman dressed crisply in his uniform, gives an elegy for his mother at her funeral. Though he has come prepared, he quickly breaks down into a rambling, vindictive, but never entirely incoherent rant that presents the viewer with a character that seems fully formed after only ten minutes. Jim is clearly a damaged individual, though the damage seems to be of his own making. It’s not clear how close he was to his mother, a frustrated ballerina who operated her own dance school in a small Lousiana town, but it’s crystal clear that whatever space existed between them was exaggerated by Jim’s aggrieved view of his position. A college grad who’s convinced he’s stupid, a romantic fool who knows he’s been used by his ex-wife, a loving father who realizes his daughter doesn’t really give two shits about him, Jim is actually too self-aware, but rather than come across as the usual cynical slacker, the kind of character these indie movies tend to present as convicted losers, Jim despairs over how much he has squandered his privilege.

Cummings plays on Jim’s whiteness in a disarming way, making him look like a stereotypical cop — very short hair, 70s mustache, shit-eating grin — but one who breaks under pressure in unexpected ways. An early attempt to intervene in a drunken homeless man’s ravings ends badly for Jim, and it’s obvious his anger issues have become a problem at work. As you can imagine, there’s nothing worse than a cop with anger issues. It’s interesting that Jim’s only friend is his partner, Nate (Nican Robinson), who is Black. Nate seems to be the only person who sees the pain under the anger, and though he’s the target of that rage twice in the movie, he’s willing to catch Jim when he falls.

Thunder Road, which is named after the Bruce Springsteen song (Jim’s mother’s favorite) and not the Robert Mitchum movie, doesn’t really try to be funny, though Jim’s despair is so complete that he often laughs at how pathetic he is. In one scene where he’s arguing for joint custody of his daughter, he offends the judge inadvertently, and you can see a switch immediately turn on in Jim’s brain: I screwed up again. You want to laugh but you can’t. Sometimes pity really is the only proper reaction to an inveterate loser.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Thunder Road home page in Japanese.

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Review: The Current War

As laser-focused historical movies go, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s take on the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over who would build the first electricity grid in the U.S. has an immediately appealing hook in that electricity is something we take for granted without really understanding how it came into our lives. The obvious pitfall in any presentation of this story is getting past the technical aspects, because, basically, the rivalry was centered on the two men’s respective favored approaches to current: Edison preferred direct current, while Westinghouse thought alternating current was more efficient, and, for sure, a good part of the movie, at least in the beginning, is a struggle to make sense of the differences in these two approaches.

But that really isn’t the main problem, which is that Gomez-Rejon doesn’t know how to tell a story like this in a way that makes even the non-technical aspects comprehensible. That’s because there are too many celebrity inventors/industrialists on hand to keep track of, and often you wonder what exactly these people are up to. Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, looking nothing like photos you’ve seen of America’s greatest inventor) is already a celebrity when the movie starts, and because he doesn’t have the kind of cash necessary to fulfill his vision of electricity for the masses, he partners with Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), one of the richest men in the U.S. in the late 19th century, but eventually they split, mainly over decorum. The two men are supposed to meet to talk strategy and the preternaturally arrogant Edison doesn’t show up. Westinghouse carries the grudge into the next century, and in the meantime steals another inventor, Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), from the Edison camp.

History demands we get into the two protagonists’ personal lives as well, thus bogging the script down in endless side trips to Mary Edison’s (Tuppence Middleton) illness, the cruel exploitation of Edison’s trusted assistant, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), and Westinghouse’s self-laceration for past sins that are never fully explained but are rooted in his Civil War service. Most of the movie is made up of one or the other Great Man of History ranting about the other. In the end, we may not fully understand the details and exigencies of the so-called current war, but we do know that Thomas Edison is a self-important blowhard and George Westinghouse is a sadly misunderstood plutocrat. Whether you believe those two portrayals are historically accurate is your own business.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (50-6868-5024).

The Current War home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Lantern Entertainment LLC 2019

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Review: House of Hummingbird

In a year when world movie fans finally woke up to the consistent brilliance of Korean cinema through the vehicle of Parasite, it should probably be noted that in South Korea itself the movie that vied with Parasite in 2019 as the finest of the year, at least among critics, was the indie debut House of Hummingbird by Kim Bora. Purists will say that comparing the two films is a chump’s game, since Parasite is high-concept while Hummingbird is personal. They don’t compete on the same playing field, especially in South Korea where parameters like genre and financial backing have more meaning than they do in other film markets. But to those of us outside of Korea, the two movies have more in common than they do to people inside Korea, and having seen both in South Korea, albeit 12 months apart, I found Hummingbird more affecting and, even now, more memorable.

It’s a classic, almost formulaic coming-of-age story, and the fact that Kim has been developing it for a decade (it started out as a 2011 short) is apparent in its length and leisurely pacing (138 minutes). In 1994, Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo) is 14 years old and struggling to assert an identity that no one seems to care about. Her violent, frustrated father (Jung In-gi) and diffident mother (Lee Seung-yeon) are fixated on Eun-hee’s older brother (Son Sang-yeon), who is preparing for university despite his own problems with anger-management. Her older sister (Bak Su-yeon) is painfully withdrawn. Eun-hee, the sole object of Kim’s camera throughout the film, is an island of fleeting complexity in an apartment that feels both cramped and foreign to her sensibility. She has a best friend (Park Sae-yun) with whom she falls in and out of favor, and a boyfriend (Jeong Yun-seo) with whom she experiments sexually, but in the long run she is more comfortable with the shy female classmate, Yuri (Seol Hyein), who seems to have a crush on Eun-hee, and her calligraphy teacher Young-ji (Kim Sae-Byuk), a philosophical, rebellious type who seems to get as much out of teaching Eun-hee as Eun-hee gets out of just sitting in Young-ji’s class absorbing her freedom-loving vibe.

Though most of the dramatic plot points—suffering a serious illness, moving past a death in the family, learning from a serious faux pas (shoplifting)—are standard fare for coming-of-age stories, Kim positions them in an emotional environment that feels fully inhabited. Eun-hee’s troubled home life, informed mainly by her father’s infidelities and her sister’s abject, silent misery, is so finely textured as to be almost tactile. And her interactions with her friends and teachers are delineated by conversations that have more to do with character than plot development. More significantly, Kim is not afraid to pinpoint Eun-hee’s specialness in her capacity for what can only be called small eruptions of happiness, because such moments have as much to do with gaining maturity as the so-called hard knocks of life. The climactic tragedy that is required of all coming-of-age stories is thus given a context that brings the movie to a quietly devastating conclusion. Because this tragedy is couched in a real-life disaster, it will definitely have more resonance for Korean viewers, but anyone will understand its significance. The first time I saw it I left the theater drained; the second time, elated.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya Euro Space (03-3461-0211).

House of Hummingbird home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Epiphany Films

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Review: Adrift

Romantic melodramas adapted from real-life incidents can often feel doubly phony, since the viewer’s consciosness that these things really happened makes the contrivances feel all the more stagey. Adrift, which is adapted from a memoir by Tami Oldham, has a lot of that loose feeling of stretching the truth for the sake of emotional provocation, but since the basic story is dramatic by definition the viewer allows leeway for their reactions.

Oldham (Shailene Woodley) is a young, freedom-obsessed woman who is traveling the world on her wits and her charms, securing employment in one place before accumulating enough money to go to someplace else. In Tahiti in 1983 she’s working on the docks when she meets Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a charismatic Englishman circumnavigating the world in his own hand-made sailboat. Despite what feels like a marked difference in age that makes Oldham suspicious of Sharp’s attentions, they fall in love, a development that puts a crimp in Oldham’s plans because her goal is to do this beach bum thing for as long as she can, and by herself. The idea of real life beckoning from the near future terrifies her. But Sharp already has the future in hand, and while the source of his income remains fuzzy, he’s obviously got life licked, and when he invites Oldham to help him deliver a yacht for a wealthy couple to their home in San Diego, she takes him up on the offer.

Director Baltasar Kormakur jolts back-and-forth between the idyllic time in Tahiti as Oldham and Sharp get to know each other intimately and at their own pace, and the time they spend alone together on the yacht going across the Pacific. Since Oldham chronicled this journey in her best-selling book, it’s not spoiling anything to say that they run into trouble in the form of a storm that destroys much of the yacht and seriously injures Sharp. Much of the yacht-bound portion of the movie is about Oldham coming up with ways of keeping the yacht seaworthy and staying alive. It’s a movie about physical and emotional extremes, and that makes the melodramatic love story that much more potent. The survival sequences are as good as such sequences get, but they are intensified by the undercurrent of Oldham’s desperation in the face of losing a man she has come to love. Whereas most directors tend to focus on the elements in such movies, showing how small we are in comparison to nature, Kormakur zeroes in on Oldham to show how love is the greatest of all powers.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955).

Adrift home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 STX Financing LLC

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Review: Luce

Julius Onah’s 2019 American film, based on a play by J.C. Lee (who wrote the screenplay with Onah), proves, if anything, that Hollywood and its lesser lights are not afraid to address thorny issues for the sake of provocation. Luce, which tackles racism, white guilt, and aspects of the #MeToo movement, will leave most people confused as to where they are expected to stand on the matters put forth, and one can feel either edified or manipulated by the results without necessarily being wrong about those feelings.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the titular character, a Black honors senior at a high school in Virginia who was born in a war-torn country in Africa and adopted by a middle class white couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Having been trained as a child soldier, Luce required extensive therapy after arriving in the U.S., and the success of his assimilation is apparent in his academic record. He’s a star of the school debating club, and his athletic talent has attracted the interest of many universities who are waving scholarships at him. In the classic dramatic sense, Luce is too good to be true, which is where Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) comes in.

Wilson is Luce’s history teacher, who is bothered by a paper the youngster wrote about Frantz Fanon, a revolutionary intellectual from the French West Indies. The assignment was to write from the point of view of a controversial historical figure, and Luce did just that, but the boy’s assumption of Fanon’s embrace of mass violence in his cause disturbs her—and then someone finds fireworks in Luce’s locker.

As Luce’s parents are made aware of the essay and the fireworks, which are illegal in Virginia, the audience is clued in to Luce’s darker nature, which, the film suggests, was never quite subdued by his therapy. The script develops apace in showing how seeds of doubt are planted in Amy’s and Peter’s understanding of their son’s motivations, and even his character, while Wilson becomes convinced that Luce’s exceptional behavior and attitude are all a facade. This suspicion transfers to the audience when rumors spread that Luce was somehow involved in a sexual assault on his girlfriend, Stephanie (Andrea Bang). The suspicions turn poisonous when Wilson becomes the target of anonymous pranks that rattle her to her core.

Lee’s plotting is almost too clean in that every element that points to Luce’s subterfuge is arguable from an ethical standpoint. Pitting a Black teacher against a Black student because the latter is taking advantage of white guilt is problematic, and Lee further complicates the matter by showing how Wilson once prevented another Black student from receiving a scholarship because he didn’t go the extra mile to be the exemplary Black man (i.e., in white folks’ eyes) that Luce so perfectly embodies. For sure, Luce interrogates American attitudes on race in a brutally complete fashion, but the contrivances evident in the characterizations can be infuriating. It’s an uncomfortable, sometimes self-contradicting movie, and while it brings up important issues for debate, its methodology is as suspect as its subject’s veiled intentions.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Luce home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 DFG Pictures Inc.

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