I once did a story on a psychiatric hospital in a Tokyo suburb, in what now seems like a previous life. After an interview with the hospital director, I toured the wards and chatted with the patients. One, a middle-age housewife type, told me frankly that she was there for alcoholism. She struck me as starved for company but was otherwise indistinguishable from the supposedly “normal” masses shopping in the aisles at Itoyokado.

She wasn’t a rarity then — or even now, I suppose. Drug and alcohol rehab centers based on the U.S. model, including the pricey spalike establishments where celebrities sober up, are still not common in Japan, leaving the mental hospital or ward as the default institutional alternative.

That is where Asuka (Yuki Uchida), the heroine of Masuo Suzuki’s “Quiet Room ni Yokoso (Welcome to the Quiet Room),” ends up after a booze- and sleeping-pills session leaves her in a coma. She awakens three days later to find herself strapped to what looks like an operating table in a white-painted room. A steely-eyed nurse informs her that her live-in boyfriend Tetsuo (Kankuro Kudo) discovered her and brought her to the hospital. When she asks when she can leave, the nurse coolly informs her that it all depends on the decision of her doctor and “caregiver (hogosha),” whoever that may be.

Quiet Room ni Yokoso
Director Masuo Suzuki
Run Time 118 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Oct. 20, 2007

In other words, she is trapped — and can remember next to nothing of how she got there. Sounds like the setup for a horrific expose of the type found in Samuel Fuller’s 1963 asylum film “Shock Corridor,” doesn’t it? Instead, director Suzuki, a comic multitalent who acts, writes and leads the Otona Kikaku drama troupe, goes in a wackier but essentially serious direction, exploring the fuzzy line between normality and insanity and how falling to the wrong side of it can utterly change your life — if not always for the worse.

His take on this material is at several removes from reality, though. First of all, nearly all the women in the ward are young, save for a befuddled lady in a kimono (Mariko Tsutsui) and an over-the-hill adult-video actress (Shinobu Otake). Several, including the anorexic Miki (Yu Aoi), whose elaborate braids are masterpieces of the hair stylist’s art, are stunners. Even the nurse-from-hell, Eguchi (Ryo), is an Angelina Jolie lookalike. Also, the patients are mostly lovable eccentrics, not ill in a stark, violent or similarly unpleasant way. No wonder the male doctors at this establishment walk around with self-satisfied grins — they’ve lucked out.

But they and nearly all the other so-called sane characters, beginning with Tetsuo, a goofy boy-man who writes for a popular TV variety show, are quirky types as well. Also, as Asuka recalls her precrackup life as a freelance writer, we see that it was a frenzied round of interviews with ego-mad celebrities and phone calls from frantic editors, followed by drink and drugs and hours in front of the tube, cackling at Tetsuo’s brainless show and others like it. In other words, the poor woman was not on the verge of a nervous breakdown but living in one.

As Asuka recovers — and the other patients, once flitting shadows, assume human form to her frazzled mind, the story darkens and deepens, perhaps more than the director intended (though it is based on his own novel). But it never descends to tear-stained melodrama or teeth-gritting uplift. Instead, Asuka achieves a modicum of peace by accepting the craziness around her, and within herself, instead of fighting or running from it. She even gets along with Eguchi and the other nurses, who may be sticklers for the absurd rules but are dedicated sorts nonetheless.

Also, madness is supposed to isolate, but in this film the patients come together for an ironically defiant song-and-dance number. Think a female version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” minus its antiestablishment anger but full of its celebrate-our-common-weirdness spirit.

There isn’t a plot so much as a series of encounters and eye openers. The central, not-so-compelling revelation is how Asuka ended up in the hospital in the first place, disclosed through a lengthy series of flashbacks. She gets to know her fellow patients, especially the loud, boisterous, definitely loony actress Nishino and the whispery, dangerously self-destructive Miki.

She also receives visitors, including the grotesquely self-abasing Tetsuo and his loopy chatterbox assistant (Satoshi Tsumabuki), both of whom remind her uncomfortably of the nuttiness awaiting her outside the hospital doors.

As Asuka, Uchida stands apart from the swirling action, like a spectator dragged up on stage. A former top model and TV drama queen appearing in her first feature film in nine years, Uchida has a slightly disheveled and discombobulated look but takes in everything with her alert eyes — and responds with sensitivity, energy and wit. In other words, she’s a great reactor — exactly what the part calls for.

A greater actor is Otake, who totally inhabits Nishino’s madness, from her slyness and bloody-mindedness to her utter disregard for convention. I was reminded of the first patient I encountered in my visit to the chronic ward for women, a plump middle-age lady who greeted me with a cheery “konnichi wa” — and straight away made a hard, successful grab for my privates. Where was my “Quiet Room” when I needed it?

The week’s other films:
Fido: Like death warmed up
Vitus: The gift of genius costs its young owners plenty

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