Major film festivals, with their hurry-hurry schedules, are places to polish your sound bites, not launch into nuanced disquisitions. People want your opinion in 25 words or less. When someone asked me what I thought of Kiki Sugino’s “Yokudo (Taksu)” after a screening at last month’s Busan International Film Festival, out popped “I wanted to like it more than I did,” which at least had the virtue of honesty.

Presented in BIFF’s A Window on Asian Cinema section, “Taksu” is Sugino’s first theatrically released feature, but doesn’t have a shot-on-the-cheap indie look; her directorial debut, “Manga Niku to Boku (Kyoto Elegy),” has screened at festivals but will not open until next year.

Filmed in Bali, this drama about two sisters reuniting at a time of crisis and change makes the most of its location, with everything from atmospheric shots of crumbling temples and verdant rice paddies to pointed visual commentary on how this paradise has become an anything-goes play-zone for First World partiers, with hookers swarming nighttime back streets and white sand beaches defiled by trash.

Yokudo (Taksu)
Director Kiki Sugino
Run Time 97 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

At the same time, the story uses Bali mainly as an exotic backdrop to the turbulent emotions of its Japanese principals — the usual strategy of local films shot abroad. With a bit of rejigging it could have been filmed in Waikiki, though perhaps not Atami.

Working from a script by Kotaro Wajima, Sugino shapes some telling, evocative scenes, but the thread tying these scenes together — what scriptwriting how-to books call the “through line” — is frayed or missing, with important characters simply wandering off. The point of the entire film is left as a question of the puzzling rather than provocative sort. However, Indonesian cinematographer Sidi Saleh’s climactic shot of a blood-red sunset is fabulous.

The story begins with a situation found in many medical melodramas in Japan and elsewhere: A brooding, handsome guy with artfully tousled hair is dying of an unnamed terminal disease, though mention is made of a failed transplant.

One of the departures from this formula is that the terminally ill guy, Chihiro (Takumi Saito), is married, not to a standard-issue idol type, but the womanly mature and emotionally cool Yuri (Yoko Mitsuya). Another is that the tear-jerking scenes are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, Chihiro alternates between gloom about his approaching end and anger at what he considers Yuri’s complacency.

Still another is that Yuri’s pregnant sister Kumi (Sugino), while supportive on the surface, is more concerned with her quickly approaching labor than Kumi’s marital troubles. Her good-natured Dutch husband (film writer Tom Mes) does what he can to smooth the waters, but his role in the drama is limited.

Feeling distraught and lonely after a tumultuous argument with Chihiro, Yuri succumbs to the advances of a local beach boy and professional gigolo (Sunny Cornelio), but this sexual healing proves temporary. Will Chihiro and Yuri go their separate ways, or can they reconcile before Chihiro’s final moments?

The answer may seem obvious, but the denouement is not so easy to parse, for reasons both good and not so good. Not to give anything away, but at one crucial moment I briefly felt I was watching a zombie movie — no, not good at all.

But Sugino, who has served as producer on both her own films and those of others, including frequent collaborator Koji Fukada and Malaysian filmmaker Lim Kah-wai, knows how to put value up on the screen, as in the previously mentioned sunset shot. And as an in-demand actress with credits all around Asia (the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival screened a section of her films titled “Sugino Kiki: Muse of the Asian Indie Cinema”), she understands how to extract the best from her cast — particularly Yoko Mitsuya, her lead.

Mitsuya, a former gravure idol (pin-up girl) who has played mostly supporting roles in forgettable films, delivers exactly what the part calls for: surface calm that dramatically shatters into fragments of confusion and longing. Mitsuya supplies most of the film’s erotic and emotional charge.

Smart, talented and determined, the multi-tasking Sugino is undoubtedly bound for bigger and better things. But one small word of advice for the next film: Spend more time on the script.

Fun fact: Kiki Sugino’s first film, “Kyoto Elegy,” screened at the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival in mid-October, though its official world premiere was in the Asian Future section of the Tokyo International Film Festival a few weeks later.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.