Room LaunderingReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/18/18 12:18:31
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The light-and-dark tone of "Room Laundering" is established early as cute childlike narration quickly gives way to murder, and then we're just as quickly talking about the practice of the title as a con game. It seems weirdly schizophrenic, but that's appropriate and oddly respectful for a movie that builds itself out of how ghosts are a downright odd phenomenon."Room laundering" in this film is a way real-estate brokers try to get around the pesky Japanese law that requires they tell prospective renters or purchasers that someone died in an apartment - the law is vague on just how many subsequent tenants need to know this, so if you move someone in for a month, you have technically complied. That's a big part of Goro Ikazuzi's sketchy real-estate business, and as a bonus, it has given his niece Miko Yakumo (Elaiza Ikeda) a spot to lay her head and novelty duck lamp for a month or two at a time since the grandmother who raised her after father died and mother disappeared has herself passed on. A shy, timid girl who likes to draw but can't afford art school, she's not supposed to interact with the neighbors, but her recently-developed ability to see ghosts means she has unwanted roommates: Punk-rocker suicide Kimihiko Kasuga (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is the first we meet, before Goro (Joe Odagiri) moves her to where Yuuki Chikamoto (Kaoru Mitsumune) was murdered - and where Miko catches the eye of Akito Nijikawa (Kentaro Ito) next door.
The basic premises that come together for this movie - ghosts hanging around until some unfinished business being accomplished allows them to move on, the girl with no friends among the living because she's surrounded by the dead, the need to exorcise tainted domiciles - are well-worn enough to often feel taken for granted, and co-writer/director Kenji Katagiri is expectedly casual in introducing them, starting from a point where Miko has grown used to the lamp her mother gave her glowing in the presence of spirits and being kind of annoyed when Kimihiko shows up. It works, too; the film finds an unusual tone that's funny but not flip, sad but not maudlin. On top of that, it allows Katagiri and co-writer Tatsuya Umemoto to lay some misdirection out in plain sight and not worry too much about rules and stakes as the audience watches Miko start to make connections and engage with both the living and the dead.
The ghosts, especially, are an unusual but intriguing bunch. The cheerful nature that Kiyohiko Shibukawa gives Kimihiko makes him a fine initial contrast to Miko, but also to his own suicide (the film doesn't really talk directly about depression, but it's not hard to read Kimihiko as being free of his bad brain chemistry here); Yuuki, meanwhile, is often initially only visible as the knife in her back, and her anger and frustration reflects the wrongs that the world has done to Miko which she can't easily leave behind. Among the living Joe Odagiri makes an enjoyably relaxed supporting figure, while Kentaro Ito does a nice job of giving Nijikawa a personality even as the plot requires him to be a suspect in Yuuki's murder.
Elaiza Ikeda is the one that sells it, though, playing her surface annoyance straight while letting her basic desire to help peek out. She carries the weight of bother her abandonment and gift around (assisted by a long-banged haircut that can swallow her face and dresses the color of dried blood), creating a dark default that lets the moments where she does feel some sort of joy pop. Ikeda handles the film's dry humor well and also just the right combination of discomfort and hope when Miko does find a reason to reach out. That growing resolve makes the eventual argument that this damaged kid is the strongest of them feel truer than usual.
Miko will find ways to show that strength; the filmmakers may give her a loose story that goes off on some relatively unexplored tangents - it wouldn't surprise me if this was originally conceived of as a television series with a lot of other threads going on as Miko meets and helps new ghosts in new places - but they pull things together well as the film nears its end, and the last act twists tend to be satisfying more than just upending things to shock. There's a nice, if occasionally ghoulish, eccentricity at play that never becomes too inward-focused or exclusionary despite the fantasy involved.Mostly, the film just walks the line between the zany/absurd and dark/morose things the familiar elements often imply, and is all the better for it. Katagiri et al may not actually dive into the clever part of their high concept, but that turns out to be the right call by the time the film is finished.
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