World War II-themed films by elderly Japanese directors with direct experience of the war are not only becoming scarcer, but are also distinctly different from those of younger filmmakers trying to appeal to a mass audience. Kazuo Kuroki’s 2006 film “Kamiya Etsuko no Seishun (The Blossoming of Kamiya Etsuko),” Kaneto Shindo’s “Ichimai no Hagaki (Postcard)” from 2010, and Koji Wakamatsu’s “Caterpillar” released the same year, are all passionate testaments to the official crimes and human tragedies of a rapidly receding era.

Born in 1936, Shoichiro Sasaki belongs to the younger end of this group. Also, instead of laboring in the vineyards of indie filmmaking like Kuroki, Shindo and Wakamatsu, Sasaki had a long and successful career with public broadcaster NHK, winning foreign and domestic awards for his dramas.

Returning to the director’s chair for the first time in nearly two decades, Sasaki has made what may be his swan song: “Minyon Baion no Hosoku (Harmonics Minyoung).” The film is as nonmainstream as any of the titles mentioned above and also, like them, a personal film, if one with a larger ambition than presenting the director’s autobiography.

Minyon Baion no Hosoku (Harmonics Minyoung)
Director Shoichiro Sasaki
Run Time 140 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 11

Unlike his more bluntly-spoken directorial seniors, Sasaki takes a discursive and frankly nostalgic approach to his film about a young Korean woman searching for the story behind a wartime photograph that haunts her. At the same, he experiments freely with form, time and language in ways his former NHK bosses probably would not have approved.

The film is like a conduit to 78-year-old Sasaki’s mind, with its indelible wartime memories, quirky creativity and deep affection for Western classics, as well as folk songs and pop standards from Japan, Korea and America. It rambles on too long and is too much in love with its eponymous Korean star, including her somewhat-shaky singing voice, but it also opens windows to the past that soon will be closed for good.

Minyoung (played by Min-young, no surname given) is a student at a Seoul university, dreaming her way through her studies and writing a novel she titles “Harmonics” (in Japanese, “Baion no Hosoku”). Both she and her sassy younger sister (real-life sibling Yoon-young) are fluent in English and Japanese, which the latter learned while living in Japan, and are big fans of classical music, which they regard almost as a religion, with Mozart as their god.

Minyoung, however, is alone in her obsession with the war-era photo of the family of her grandmother’s close Japanese friend, Sueko Sasaki. (The photo happens to be of the director’s own family.) When her sister goes to Japan to become an English teacher, Minyoung decides to follow and unravel the photo’s mystery, which, for her, centers on the proud, beautiful Sueko.

From here on, the film’s relationship with reality becomes fluid, to say the least. In Shibuya, Minyoung encounters a boy who looks and acts like a street urchin from the desperate, early postwar days. Like a GI from the American Occupation, she gives him and his pals a big bar of chocolate — but her new acquaintance is not about to let her go easily. She also visits a friend (Tatsunori Tanbe) from her time as an exchange student at Waseda University. Now a journalist probing society’s darker side, he is being watched by sinister types who resemble war-era Kenpeitai (military police).

Eventually, the boy and the friend becomes characters in a new drama, while Minyoung comes to assume Sueko’s identity — and live her turbulent life from nearly seven decades ago. And time after time, Sueko/Minyoung bursts into song. These musical interludes are not just stress relief, but her way of “harmonizing” a dangerous, chaotic world.

The usual directorial strategy with nonprofessional actors is to give them few lines to say or emotions to express, but Sasaki daringly calls on his all-amateur cast to perform, rather than just “be themselves,” and they rise to the challenge, if not always steadily. Also, his star, Min-young, is often called on to emote in two or three languages, as though simultaneously interpreting her own performance, to odd effect at times.

But once it becomes clear the film is more a music/memory-inspired stream of consciousness than sober drama, the slips back and forth in time or between characters and languages feel less strange. In fact, the film’s visual and conceptual gumbo acquires a loopy charm, despite its narrative longueurs.

The film could have easily been 30 minutes shorter, or more, but I doubt that Sasaki really cares. In his first-ever feature film he has said exactly what he wanted to say, in exactly the way he wanted to say it.

War is hell, but a familiar song eases the pain. Who can argue with that?

Fun fact: Sasaki worked for NHK from 1960 to 1994, after which he became a freelance director. In 2006 the Nihon Eiga Satellite Broadcasting channel aired 16 of Sasaki’s television programs for a three-month period.

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