Film / Reviews

'Desperate Sunflowers': Women on the verge of friendship

by Mark Schilling

Movies about female friendship are no longer rare: In the 25 years since the seminal “Thelma and Louise,” even the Japanese film industry has figured out that two or more women bonding on screen can be good for the box office. But what about feuding female cousins?

Based on Nozomi Katsura’s bestselling 2010 novel “Iyana Onna,” veteran actress Hitomi Kuroki’s debut as a director takes this unusual premise in conventional directions, almost as though she and scriptwriter Masafumi Nishida went down the list of J-film cliches and ticked all the boxes.

First, despite the film’s Japanese title of “Iyana Onna,” which means “hateful woman,” the film’s women are all lovable types, however unlovely their behavior may be at times. (The film’s English title, “Desperate Sunflowers,” is an ungainly expression of this.) Second, there are many plot turns aimed at extracting hankies from purses and pockets, including timely and untimely ends for this character and that. Whether one or both heroines fall into the doomed category I won’t say — but you can surely guess.

Desperate Sunflowers (Iyana Onna)
Run Time 105 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

We first meet the cousins as girls, when shy little Tetsuko (Yo Yoshida) conceives an unconquerable dislike of the weepy, willful Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). One segue and several decades later, Natsuko breezes into the law office where Tetsuko is now a hard-working attorney. Joyfully recognizing her long-lost cousin — a feeling the sober-sided Tetsuko does not share — Natsuko tells her she wants compensation from a former fiance for breaking off their engagement.

When Tetsuko dutifully investigates, she learns that Natsuko was intending to cheat the poor sap out of an apartment, a fact that Natsuko flatly denies before she sails out of Tetsuko’s life, neglecting to pay her legal bill. Nonconformist doesn’t quite describe Natsuko. She is, we discover, a scam artist.

Afterward, nothing goes right for the unsmiling, all-business Tetsuko. Her husband leaves her, her clients complain of her coldness and even her easy-going boss (Lasalle Ishii) scolds her for lacking the human touch. A kindly legal aide (Eiko Nagashima) offers moral support and a handsome new hire (Aoi Nakamura) stays loyally by her side, but Tetsuko is slowly drowning in quiet desperation — when Natsuko shows up again with another dodgy legal problem.

As you might expect, this reunion does not goes smoothly. But as Tetsuko is again sucked into the whirlwind that is Natsuko, she learns life lessons from her free-spirited cuz and those around her, victims included, who love her for all her faults. Natsuko’s big, warm heart wins them over, with the exception of a golden-haired lover and fellow scammer (Yuta Furukawa), who is the film’s one true rat.

As the oil-and-water cousins, Yoshida and Kimura play so broadly that the comatose would immediately see their characters are hardly soulmates. Even so, they make the inevitable reconciliation not completely absurd, scattering hints that Tetsuko will thaw and Natsuko will reveal a less selfish side, if not see the error of her ways.

A veteran with a three-decade career and a Japan Academy Best Actress Prize for her turn as a suicidal lover in the smash “Lost Paradise” (“Shitsurakuen,” 1997), Kuroki not only shaped these performances but also initiated the project, beginning with a letter to the publisher of “Iyana Onna” asking for permission to film it. No doubt calling in favors, she cast even minor roles with well-known names, including Naoto Takenaka, another actor/director, in a cameo as a friendly truck driver who gives Natsuko a ride. Her industriousness and dedication are commendable.

And for all the over-emoting found in forgettable TV dramas, I will remember a knock-down-drag-out brawl between the two principals that generates real sweat and heat.

But when the dust clears, it’s back to the box ticking.