Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” was published in 1940, and critics and readers have been debating the truth of its title ever since. Wolfe himself had no doubt: His autobiographical writings, with their biting, thinly disguised portraits, made him persona non grata in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.
In Japanese films, however, characters are forever heading back to their furusato (hometown), no matter how frosty the reception. Feelings of duty to family often prompt the move, as do hard economic facts: Home may not be where the heart is, but you can usually get three squares a day there.
Misaki Yoshida (Hiromi Nagasaku), the feisty, emotionally wounded heroine of Taiwanese director Chiang Hsiu-chiung’s “Saihate nite: Yasashii Kaori to Machinagara (The Furthest End Awaits),” is under no such obligation or duress when she decides to return to the ruggedly beautiful Noto Peninsula. Instead she has other more personal reasons for taking up residence in the ramshackle boathouse that is the sole bequest of her fisherman father (Jun Murakami) — missing at sea for eight years and out of her life for nearly 30.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||118 minutes|
Based on Nako Kakinoki’s script, the film falls into the popular “heroine finds her groove in picturesque locale” genre. Also, Misaki’s occupation — she roasts and sells her own coffee blends to customers all over Japan — has parallels in recent Japanese films with foodie or back-to-basics themes, such as the recent “Little Forest” duology, whose heroine grows and prepares her own delicious-looking organic veggies.
Chiang, who trained under Taiwanese master directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, lifts Misaki’s story out of its generic rut by sensitively focusing on specific human dilemmas rather than eye-candy (or coffee) visuals or the miraculous curative powers of Misaki’s roasted beans.
Instead of a fantasy figure enjoying a rural idyll, Misaki impresses from the start as a dedicated artisan and savvy businesswoman, if one yearning for a father she barely knew. Soon after arriving she has the boathouse looking ship-shape and her coffee roaster up and running. But her only neighbor — a statuesque beauty named Eriko (Nozomi Sasaki) living alone in a huge lodge with her two young children — is unaccountably rude and abrupt. (“Why am I even talking to you — go away!” is her brush-off when Misaki comes calling.)
When Eriko goes to her job as club hostess, the kids — third-grader Arisa (Hiyori Sakurada) and her younger brother Shota (Kaisei Hotamori) — are left on their own with hardly any money, hardly any real food (instant ramen being the nearest substitute) and hardly anything to do. Naturally they gravitate toward the strange lady down the hill, who is doing something interesting with a funny-looking machine.
Being a kindly sort, Misaki takes them in and even gives the delighted Arisa a job as her assistant. But the girl’s flighty-if-well-meaning teacher (Asami Usuda) becomes concerned about her home life (or absence thereof), while her classmates bully her for an alleged theft. Also, the children must live with the ominous presence of their mother’s much-older boyfriend (Masatoshi Nagase), who shows up out of the blue with an air of quiet menace.
One fateful day, Misaki returns to the boathouse to find him inside, playing her father’s beloved guitar. Her carefully constructed world, founded on the impossible dream of a father-daughter reunion, is about to fall to pieces.
The ensuing crisis brings Eriko and Misaki together in a way that, given what we’ve seen of the former, seems little short of miraculous, but — with coffee serving as a healing bridge — begins to make life-changing sense.
A former idol singer who has long since proven her ability to play comic or dramatic roles, Nagasaku grounds Misaki firmly in her chosen work, making it inform her every brisk, efficient gesture. At the same time, she embodies — with sure conviction and no sentimentality whatsoever — the little girl inside, who keeps one tender memory of her father alive.
The surprise for me was Sasaki, a supermodel whose movie appearances to date have been more decorative than substantive. Asked to play both nasty and nice, she brings off both seamlessly. This face of 1,000 ad campaigns gives her character a core, not just the called-for expressions.
The film’s reality-based humanism and its strong, lyrical sense of place — Noto Peninsula’s dramatic rocky coastline and crashing waves begin to infiltrate Misaki’s very soul — can also be found in the films of Chiang’s distinguished mentors. Chiang, however, tells this woman-centered story with an unerring rightness that feels imaginatively lived rather than ingeniously contrived. This isn’t to say that only a woman could have filmed it — just that Chiang has set the bar high.
Fun fact: Born in 1969, Chiang Hsiu-chiung won a best supporting actress nomination for the Golden Horse Awards — the Taiwanese film industry’s highest honors — for her work in Edward Yang’s 1991 film “A Brighter Summer Day.” She went on to make award-winning shorts, documentaries and TV movies. “Saihate nite: Yasashii Kaori to Machinagara (The Furthest End Awaits)” is her first international feature co-production.