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Before We Vanish
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by Jay Seaver

"Aliens of two minds among us."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: If and when "Before We Vanish" makes its way to physical media in the United States, I hope that the companion television series that director Kiyoshi Kurosawa did alongside it will also be made available, not just because it's more from one of Japan's greatest genre filmmakers and because the movie is good enough that I'd like to see it expanded, but because Kurosawa's adaptation of Tomohiro Maekawa's play has a combination of evolving personal stakes and escalating suspense that has recently worked extremely well on that medium, though it's just as impressive how well he makes it work in just over two hours.

Things open innocuously enough, with schoolgirl Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu) buying a goldfish and going home to put it in water, but within minutes her mother is frantically trying to escape the house only to be pulled back in and Akira is heading down the street, leaving chaos in her wake. She's not the only one acting strange - writer Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda) has suddenly seemed to develop retrograde amnesia, which elicits annoyance as much as despair in his wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa). And when reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) is trying to get footage of the crime scene at the Tachibana house, he finds another teenager, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), asking about Akira - not because they're friends, but because they're the vanguard of an imminent alien invasion and have possessed human bodies so that they can learn about the species they're about to exterminate.

The basic meat of this story isn't exactly revolutionary - Kurosawa spends much of the movie with the Kases in a setup that resembles the much-better-than-you'd-expect-from-the-title I Married a Monster from Outer Space right down to the feeling that this is a movie about a woman frustrated with how the man she loved has changed since saying "I do" disguised as an alien-invasion story, although there's a bit of Starman in there as well. It's a nice showcase for Masami Nagasawa, who does a nice job of setting out Narumi's life without Kurosawa and co-writer Sachiko Tanaka having to spell it out, a relatable mix of pride and frustration and love that doesn't always get properly returned. Narumi is as confused and frightened as anyone would be once she knows what's going on, and Nagasawa gets the audience to be right there with her rather than outside, judging.

She's got a good partner in Ryuhei Matsuda, whose Shinji is probably the most curious of the aliens but is also pushed in a more sympathetic direction by the film's conceit that they can steal and integrate abstract concepts from the humans they meet. It keeps Matsuda, Mahiro Takasugi, and Yuri Tsunematsu from simply repeating the same performance in triplicate, in that even if they were starting from the same place - which they are not; they all have unique, though still alien, base personalities - they're allowed to drift a bit. Matsuda winds up giving the most grounded performance, though Tsunematsu is probably the most entertaining as Akira seems to revel in the chaos left in their wake, while Takasugi gies a sort of amused "what's it all matter, the humans will be dead soon" air.

That the aliens do tend create chaos is part of what makes this take on the material more fun that usual - It's kind of delightful to see how well Kurosawa builds up from what seems like a typical cute indie sci-fi into something that, even as it deliberately goes for big tonal shifts, is more in line with his usual horror material, where a creeping wrongness sinks its tentacles into the whole world. Kurosawa is also great at mixing genuinely offbeat humor and surprisingly good action into the movie without losing the thread; this movie slides from the introspective to the apocalyptic without short-changing either, and Kurosawa proves to be nearly as adept at smashing cars or blowing things up as he is at having characters matter-of-factly reveal evil intent.

"Before We Vanish" may be a little more bloated than us really good for it - a set-up that requires explaining everything twice will do that - but it's still a breath of fresh air in the middle of a festival that by and large programs things that will likely go direct to VOD in the best case because Kiyoshi Kurosawa is actually a skilled, practiced filmmaker. There's not really a scene that goes by where there isn't something going on in the background, or the suspense isn't built up in amusing manner - even the redundant scenes aren't wasted - and that's how a longish, somewhat familiar flick becomes one of the best things going in its category.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32153&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/16/18 21:37:03
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