‘Honesty,” Billy Joel famously lamented in song, “is hardly ever heard.” The characters of Rikiya Imaizumi’s ensemble drama “Their Distance” (“Shiranai, Futari”) seem to have been listening: They are honest to a fault with each other about their feelings, even ones that hurt their listener.
Is this a generational thing? Seeing this well-crafted if somewhat wispy film at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, I remembered being more guarded — or, shall we say, devious? — in my 20s. I didn’t want to break up with someone because I had a passing fancy for someone else — at least right away. Yes, “devious” is the word we’re looking for.
The story begins with Leon (Ren of the South Korean boy band Nu’est), a blonde-haired, angelic-looking shoe repairman who eats his lunch of homemade rice balls alone every day at the same park bench. Why the avoidance of human contact? Two years ago Leon saw a man on a bicycle being hit by a car. The man survived, but Leon still blames himself for watching and not acting. Then one day he finds a drunken woman (Hanae Kan) on his bench — and they lock eyes.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||106 mins|
This is the first of many falling plot dominos leading to possible romance but mostly heartache for the seven main characters. Four happen to be Korean and three are played by Nu’est members (Ren and the similarly looks-advantaged Minhyun and JR).
This may make “Their Distance” sound like an arty idol movie. It is and isn’t. The three handsome male leads were no doubt cast with one eye on the South Korean box office, but Imaizumi deglamorizes them in ways reminiscent of French auteur Robert Bresson, who in such films as “Pickpocket” and “Lancelot du Lac” used attractive nonactors as so many mannequins, running them through take after take until he had squeezed all the “performance” out of their performances. Imaizumi, whose previous Tokyo International Film Festival entry was the semi-autobiographical ensemble drama “Sad Tea” (2013), is nowhere near as rigorous. His opening, in fact, promises screwball comedy. The now enraptured Leon learns that the mystery girl, Suna, works at a convenience store together with countryman Sangsoo (Minhyun). After she finishes her shift, he shyly follows her to her apartment, a routine he repeats nightly.
Meanwhile, Sangsoo has fallen for Kokaze (Fumiko Aoyagi), a cute clerk at the repair shop, who, as luck would have it, is besotted with Leon. Every night she follows him as he follows Suna and, once they realize what the other is doing, they agree to team up. Funny, what?
In another spin of the romantic merry-go-round, Suna’s boyfriend, Jiwoo, becomes enamored of his Japanese language teacher Kanako (Haruka Kinami), who is living with the wheelchair-bound Arakawa (Tateto Serizawa), the victim of the aforementioned bike accident. Jiwoo spills these beans to both women and Kanako, in turn, tells Arakawa. Then both Suna and Arakawa offer to separate so Jiwoo and Kanako can be together. As Oliver Hardy was wont to say, “Here’s another nice mess.”
Imaizumi, who also wrote the script, views these complications from a gently ironic distance, while taking them seriously. Real pain is felt and real consequences ensue. As the coincidences accumulate, however, the characters become less individuals than puppets in a directorial game. (They were in Bresson’s films as well, but that was his metaphorical point.)
The outstanding exceptions are Arakawa and Kanako, whose heart-to-heart about their imperiled relationship sounds like genuine talk between two mature adults. Much of the rest of the action reminded me why, at the age of the Nu’est guys, I would rather cage-fight a hungry lion than tell certain truths to my girlfriend of the moment. Idols can always make a quick recovery from any romantic faux pas. I, on the other hand, would be on that park bench, minus the rice balls.