‘Darling wa Gaikokujin (My Darling is a Foreigner)’

The problem with marriage is that it is always a family affair

by Mark Schilling

Plenty of Japanese films feature foreigners, from extras in club scenes to main characters, such as Iain Glen’s title hero in Masahiro Shinoda’s WWII thriller “Spy Sorge” or Bae Doona’s Korean exchange student in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s high school comedy “Linda, Linda, Linda.”

Whatever the size of the role, the foreign character is usually a visitor or an intruder in an otherwise Japanese world. The film’s emotional center of gravity — that is, the character the audience is invited to identify with — is nearly always a local.

Kazuaki Ue’s “Darling wa Gaikokujin” (My Darling Is a Foreigner) is no exception.

Based on a manga by Saori Oguri that is in turn based on her real-life marriage to writer/NGO activist Tony Laszlo, this feather-light rom-com belongs to its manga-artist heroine, played by idol star Mao Inoue. Her American boyfriend, played by newcomer Jonathan Sherr, is a fantasy figure, as are the wish-fulfillment heroes in many another rom-com, from Hollywood to Bollywood.

Darling wa Gaikokujin (My Darling is a Foreigner)
Director Kazuaki Ue
Run Time 100 minutes
Language Japanese

For foreign males actually in a relationship with a local miss or missus, the film, beginning with its cringe-worthy title, will produce reactions ranging from incredulity to hilarity. I had a few laughs myself, beginning with the airy, spacious, greenery-ringed house the film’s couple inhabits — as realistic a dwelling for struggling urban 20-somethings as the notoriously roomy Manhattan apartments in the TV show “Friends.”

As gaijin characters go, though, Tony (Sherr) is on the positive-role-model side. Despite a few negatives, such as his lackadaisical approach to housekeeping and his nerdy obsession with fine linguistic points, he is sunny, considerate, sincere and pera pera (fluent) in nihongo, in contrast to Saori (Inoue), who freezes when confronted with a room of English-speaking foreigners. He is even good-looking in a tall, reedy, neat- bearded way. What’s not to love? And Saori does, enthusiastically, if bossily.

Tony is thus the gaijin equivalent of Sidney Poitier’s brainy, idealistic, well-mannered doctor in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In other words, the son-in-law most parents would die for, if it weren’t for one thing. And like Spencer Tracy’s racially blinkered father in that 1968 ground-breaker, Saori’s tight-lipped dad (Jun Kunimura) isn’t thrilled with the prospect of his younger daughter marrying out. “An international marriage will just make you suffer,” he tells Saori at her older sister’s wedding, giving no reasons. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

From here the film departs from its Hollywood predecessor in a realistic-for- Japan way. Instead of confronting her dad, Saori doesn’t tell Tony about his opposition to their marriage. That is, she treats him like an “outside person” (the literal meaning of gaijin), who needs to be spared the truth, rather than a partner who deserves to hear it. Meanwhile, she slaves away at both her eigo (English) and her manga, with the aim of proving to Dad that she can accomplish something besides jumping into an ill-advised marriage with a foreigner.

As it approaches its climax, the story follows a well-worn track, including the inevitable frantic race to the airport for reasons all-too easy to guess. Also, every possible edge is rounded off, from the quirks of Tony and Saori, which are uniformly cute, to their third-act relationship crisis, which is less stormy than pouty if not, thankfully, whiny.

Inoue, who got her big break as the ditzy, never-say-die heroine of the hit TV drama “Hana Yori Dango” (Boys Over Flowers, 2005), plays Saori as an ideal Miss Average, who is winningly bubbly one moment, admirably plucky the next. There’s nothing of the oddball gaijin-lover about her, but also nothing particularly original.

As Tony, Sherr is miles above the usual foreign actor in Japanese films, meaning he is not totally embarrassing to watch. But required to show something deeper than affability, he is lost. Instead of a betrayed lover contemplating a break-up, he looks more like a disappointed grad student examining a bad grade.

But “Darling wa Gaikokujin” can be valuable to guys here willing to learn from it, not just snicker at it, especially if they want to impress not only the girl (or gyaru) of their dreams, but also her mom and dad. Tony they can probably take. What about you?