Ever since her 2003 directorial debut “Hebi Ichigo (Wild Berries),” a black comedy about a dysfunctional family, Miwa Nishikawa has been exploring the infinite human capacity for duplicity and the elusiveness of truth.
In 2006’s “Yureru (Sway),” two brothers sleep with the same woman and one ends up testifying in court against the other, saying he saw his older sibling push her to her death from a bridge. What really happened, though, is left in doubt. In 2009’s “Dear Doctor,” a kindly old doctor in a rural village is exposed as a fraud. But his motives remain mysterious.
Like these previous films, her latest, “Yume Uru Futari (Dreams for Sale),” could have easily been made as genre entertainment; in this case, a caper comedy.
The situation: After seeing their small izakaya (pub) burn to the ground, a couple (Takako Matsu and Sadao Abe) turn to “marriage fraud” — fooling someone into thinking you’re going to marry them and then “borrowing” money from them — to raise cash for a new eatery. One can imagine the hilarity that would ensue from the dotabata (slapstick) gags of many another director.
Nishikawa, who also wrote the script, supplies a scattering of laughs, but she is more interested in examining how the couple’s deceptions, including the husband’s initial act of apparent unfaithfulness, eat away at their marriage and their souls. The film refuses to either moralize or excuse and, as usual with Nishikawa, the final judgment of the principals and their fates is left to the audience — or God.
The husband, Kanya (Abe), is impulsive, emotional and boyishly charming, while the wife, Satoko (Matsu), is the smarter, stronger, more mature one. That is, the usual local gender roles are reversed.
Soon after the fire an excited Kanya comes home with an envelope full of cash, and a shaky story of how he got it. Satoko soon unearths the truth: He had sex with a middle-aged izakaya regular (Sawa Suzuki), who then gave him the money for reasons of her own. Instead of booting the louse, though, she decides to exploit his talent for extracting money from vulnerable females.
Soon they are working together at an upscale Japanese-style restaurant, with Satoko assisting Kanya in his wooing of prospective “brides,” beginning with an over-30 office lady (Rena Tanaka) unhappy with her job and love life. Among other marks are a sweetly naive weight lifter (Yuka Ebara) with Olympic dreams but no guy; a spunky, if badly abused, prostitute (Tamae Ando) from the provinces; and a hard-working single mom (Tae Kimura) supporting her cute son and sick dad.
But as Kanya and Satoko near their financial goal, cracks begin to appear in the facade of their marriage. Kanya develops inconvenient feelings for his suckers, while starting to resent Satoko’s superiority, moral and otherwise.
Movies about crooks and scammers after the big score, from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) on, nearly all have a certain story arc, and Nishikawa’s is no exception. What sets her film apart is its sharpness about its characters’ psychologies, particularly its women. I don’t mean that Nishikawa has some special insight by virtue of being a woman herself, but she does see them — and care about them — as real individuals, not representative types.
The best example is the weight lifter, Hitomi, who looks and acts like the genuine article (including her lifts of Olympic-class weights) — and would probably be a minor gag character in almost any other film. But while making a joke or two at her expense, Nishikawa shows us the sharper-than-expected mind and tender, breakable heart beneath the bulging muscles. To his credit, Kanya sees all this as well, and his scheming begins to weigh on his conscience (not that it stops him).
The best performance, however, is that of Matsu as Satoko. Once seen as a prototypical ojo￣sama (well-bred young lady) who had her show-business ticket punched from her birth into a distinguished kabuki family, Matsu has since proven herself as an actor of rare depth, range and grit. Her turn as Satoko recalls her similarly excellent performance as the loyal if conflicted wife of a drunken, unfaithful writer in Kichitaro Negishi’s “Viyon no Tsuma (Villon’s Wife),” right down to her job as an izakaya server. But Satoko has a darker fire in her eyes, a deeper culpability for her own degradation.
Who is she really and what is she after? She gives us clues in everything from her lonely self-pleasuring (a scene Matsu brings off with a forthright naturalness) to her barely suppressed rage at her husband’s harsh accusations. Then, after an overly extended ending sequence (with last, evocative cut following last, evocative cut), we finally get a silently eloquent answer.
But how you read it is up to you.