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Love and Other Cults
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by Jay Seaver

"'Ai' means love, but, well..."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Despite being one of those Japanese films that not only never actually seems to circle back around to the flash forward where it starts but has no spot where that scene would fit - with a more pointed opening than most films that do that - "Love and Other Cults" works in large part because, even with the jumps and changes it features, there's a sad inevitability of things getting to that point, that there's no way for its lost girl to avoid the situation she finds herself in at the start. And like a lot of those very same movies, the path that gets everyone to a depressing place is often not just darkly funny, but even exhilarating.

Narrator Ryota Sakuma (Kenta Suga) falls hard for Ai Shima (Sairi Ito) as soon as she arrives at his junior high, but for once the rumors about the new girl in foster care probably don't do the screwed-up life she has led justice: Her mother Kaori (Leona Hirota) is something of a religious maniac, jumping from one belief system to another and eventually sending Ai to her latest obsession's commune, where Ai is declared as the cult's chosen one "Ananda" - at least, until it's raided because Lavy (Matthew Chozick) is a pervert as well as a fraud. So, throughout high school, she winds up bouncing between foster homes and terrible boyfriends, while Ryota himself falls in with a bad crowd in Yuji Mieno (Kaito Yoshimura) and Kenta Kitagawa (Antony), teenage hangers-on to low-level yakuza Hisaya Kida (Denden). Ryota's and Ai's paths frequently intersect over the next five years, but seldom at a point when they can manage to bring out the best in each other.

In some ways, this feels more like a Sion Sono movie than the actual Sono film that played the festival, plunging its too-young characters into desperate and bizarre situations that they sometimes are too inexperienced to understand is wrong and then having to push through because, well, what else is a kid to do? This is very much writer/director Eiji Uchida's territory too, and Uchida tends to have a more cynical, realistic view of these things than Sono; there's nothing uncanny or fantastical about the darkness in these characters' lives. Things get weird, sometimes jaw-droppingly so, but part of what makes Ai's situation is just how changeable it is - Ryota loses sight of her for what seems like a minute, and her whole life seems to be upended in the meantime.

Uchida and his cast infuse these characters with the sort of earnest energy that propels things, making one want to see how they handle their situations. It's a lot to ask of Sairi Ito, who has to find some common baseline for Ai despite her changing from scene to scene and only seldom getting to play one that can be seen as explaining the transition. The script has her eager to please but often choosing the wrong targets, but she never plays Ai as a simple, empty vessel - there's a sarcastic edge even when she's a teenage prostitute just doing what guys tell her and notes of desperation when she lands in a family that initially does right by her. She's a mess but she's never a mess so divorced from individuality that she feels more like a point Uchida is trying to make, and Ito grabs the audience even while the film is buffeting her character around.

Kenta Suga, meanwhile, is doing a fair job of portraying the sort of guy who gets by on good stated intentions and a decent veneer of sensitivity, enough to keep one feeling like he can outgrow the selfish aspects of his character; even if you're relying on subtitles, there's the right tone of voice in the narration and hint of pride in being able to fall for someone so messed-up as Ai. The cast also does good work with the less-central characters who are either strangely casual or built up as broadly comic: Antony's Kenta is a mountain of a young man whose crush on Reika (Hanae Kan), a park-service diver, is maybe the most healthy of the film in how it evolves from a sort of brute infatuation to genuinely bonding over her interests; Kaito Yoshimura and familiar character actor Denden go the other way with their manic gangsters. Leona Hirota's desperation to grab onto something as Kaori goes from darkly comic to just dark, and everyone else who could serve as family for Ai packs just enough melodramatic exaggeration into their portrayal.

As all those messy dramas accrue, one finally get to see the bits that are kind of familiar sad stories in new guise: Ai's particular backstory, with the mother always looking for some higher truth rather than tending to what's there, is unique, but there's always some desperate need for acceptance that gets pushed too far, and the lack of obvious transitions from one state to the other makes the changes more meaningful in some ways; it's not one thing putting her on an often-unfortunate path, and you can't pin a mistake to her. It lets Uchida poke around at a society that is letting people down without focusing on specific institutions: We don't see Kaori failed by conventional faiths, Ai failed by the foster care system, Yuji pushed toward a criminal path; there's just this horrible disconnect where even the best possible situation can be undone by a friend's envy and not knowing how to find personal worth except from sex.

Uchida doesn't deliver a lecture on these subjects; he's doing something more along the lines of putting the characters in horrible situations with a kernel of absurdity that lets the audience laugh in a way that's too big to exactly be nervous, comforting themselves with the thought of how the world is tough but survivable, at least until it isn't. He doesn't quite adopt an ostentatiously propulsive, upbeat style that he can undercut spectacularly, but he knows how to create excitement about what else can happen without ever moving the darker material out of sight. He sometimes plays a bit fast and loose with the timeline and what might be happening off-screen to do so, but it's not a thing the audience notices at the time.

Or, indeed, not that they mind after what is kind of a messy ending, with a bit of almost gratuitous viciousness that deserves to have its ramifications explored a bit more. That could perhaps be a bit more thought-out, but what leads up to the last act is well worth it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31395&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/04/17 19:05:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Eiji Uchida

Written by
  Eiji Uchida

Cast
  Sairi Ito
  Kenta Suga
  Kaito Yoshimura



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