Sexual orientation is often defined in black-and-white terms: You’re either straight or gay — or kidding yourself. Author Gore Vidal has famously objected to this binary classification, claiming that there’s no such thing as homosexuality, only homosexual acts.

In Momoko Ando’s debut feature “Kakera” (A Piece of Our Life), the mixed-up heroine, Haru (Hikari Mitsushima), shows that Vidal is right — or does she? More than same-sex bedtime joys, she is searching for connection in the form of a soft warm touch and an understanding heart. She’s not so much seduced as gathered into friendly arms, like a lost puppy run away from a bad home.

Ando’s approach is unlike that of “Love Juice” (2000), Kaze Shindo’s strongly erotic, emotionally explosive portrait of a rocky lesbian relationship. Instead it reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s candy-colored and apolitical, but cheeky and original, take on the French Revolution in “Marie Antoinette” (2006). (Apropos of nothing, Ando is the daughter of actor/director Eiji Okuda; Shindo, the granddaughter of director/scriptwriter Kaneto Shindo, and Coppola, the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola.)

Kakera (A Piece Of Our Life)
Director Momoko Ando
Run Time 107 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens April 3, 2010

Coppola’s film had its enthusiastic supporters and fierce detractors. Ando’s, however, has stirred up controversy only for its mildly risque poster, since changed by its distributor. Otherwise, it’s more on the inclusive than divisive side. Its hard-to-fault message is delivered with cool intelligence and zero preachiness: Desire is not same-sex or opposite-sex, but human.

It begins with Haru, an indifferent college student, enduring the clumsy embraces and casual disregard of her gun-nut boyfriend (Tasuku Nagaoka). Retreating to a coffee shop to nurse her psychic wounds, she attracts the attention of Riko (Eriko Nakamura), a slightly older woman whose open-faced, straightforward declaration of sexual interest both intimidates and intrigues her.

The latter feeling wins out — and soon Haru and Riko are going on the standard dates of local romantic dramas: an amusement park, a zoo and, finally, a fireworks display where they exchange their first passionate kiss. Riko even introduces Haru to her dad and mom — warm, good-hearted folks who run a dry-cleaning shop. How sweet. And, if this were an ordinary love story about a straight couple, how cliched.

But Ando, who wrote the script based on Erica Sakurazawa’s manga, tells this story at one ironic remove. She doesn’t wink at her material so much as take an objective step back from it, while giving it a light comic gloss and sending it on a couple of gently surreal flights of fancy.

Riko, who works as a prosthetist (maker of artificial body parts), is clearly missing something herself. A restless spirit, she wants more than frisky, playful idylls in the bedroom with Haru — she demands unconditional love, absolute possession. Meanwhile, Haru is still agonizing over her break-up with the blatantly unfaithful boyfriend, as well as her sexual identity. Conflict with the all-or-nothing Riko is inevitable.

Mitsushima, whose profile soared with her performance as the kick-ass, Bible-quoting heroine of Sion Sono’s indie hit “Ai no Mukidashi” (Love Exposure, 2008), plays Haru as lonely and confused but quietly stubborn, as she sorts out her sexual and emotional life. Mitsushima brings out this last quality well enough to keep the character from sinking into boring passivity — but I couldn’t help wanting to see more fire, less fog.

As Riko, Nakamura is something of an enigma — bold and direct with Haru, hesitant and unsure with Toko (Rino Katase), a middle-age client-turned- lover to whom she improbably turns after she and Haru violently quarrel. Nakamura doesn’t quite solve this enigma, but she perfectly expresses Riko’s central dilemma: the intensity that wins her lovers prevents her from keeping them.

What first seem like charming quirks, from her wide-eyed, burning gaze to her urgent, tumbling flow of words, reveal themselves as signs of a hunger that knows no bounds, a loneliness that no prosthetic part can heal.

Gay or straight, “Kakera” tells us, love can burn out as quickly as it flames up. And we’re all pieces of kindling for the fire.

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