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“I know that many film fans have an allergy to films based on plays,” writes Kenji Yamauchi on the website for his new film, “At the Terrace” (“At the Terrace: Terasu Nite”). “The never-changing setting and the long conversations bore them.”

“Boring,” however, was not my thought as I watched this ensemble comedy, based on Yamauchi’s own award-winning play, at the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival. Similar to “Her Father, My Lover” (“Tomodachi no Papa ga Suki”), Yamauchi’s 2015 film that also screened in TIFF’s Japanese Cinema Splash section, “At the Terrace” wants to be witty and a touch scandalous.

Though not often seen in Japanese films, this combination will be familiar to fans of Billy Wilder, Neil Simon and, going back even further than postwar-era Hollywood and Broadway, Oscar Wilde. But while “Her Father, My Lover” struggled under the weight of its own conceits, including the main one of a young woman determined to seduce her best pal’s dad, “At the Terrace” remains light on its feet from beginning to end, despite moments when its clever artifices threaten to crumble, like a pastry sculpture left too long in the sun.

At the Terrace (At the Terrace — Terasu Nite)
Rating
Run Time 95 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The story unfolds in one evening on the title terrace of a company director’s luxurious house, whose interior is only glimpsed through the curtains. A party is well underway, with the mustachioed Soejima (Kenji Iwaya) and his buxom wife, Kazumi (Kei Ishibashi), serving as hosts. Their guests are a bearded designer named Saito (Ryuta Furuya) and his wife, Haruko (Kami Hiraiwa); a nervous young man (Hiroaki Morooka) who is another Saito — this one employed by Toyota; and Tanoura (Takashi Okabe), a pasty-faced man recovering from major surgery. The Soejimas’ lanky college-age son (Atsushi Hashimoto) is a late arrival.

The catalyst for the ensuing action is Kazumi, who catches the younger Saito in the act of admiring Haruko and teases out the admission that he was captivated by her white arms. This inflames the jealousy of Kazumi, who looks quite the temptress in her low-cut gown and sexy-librarian glasses. She takes out her bile on the unsuspecting Haruko, who flares back and tells her husband she wants to leave.

However, the husband doesn’t want to offend Soejima, an important client, so he urges Haruko to be patient. Meanwhile, Saito the Younger struggles to explain away his actions — and manages to offend Saito the Elder. And poor Tanoura, trying to be agreeable but failing to handle the stress, passes out flat on the terrace. Surely this soiree will soon come to a merciful (for the participants, at least) end?

In adapting his own play for the screen, Yamauchi finds reasons to keep the party going that expose lies and release inhibitions to funny and erotic effect. Revolving as it does around a battle for social supremacy between two women and explosive sexual secrets between two men, the story may seem old school (thus the Wilder, Simon and Wilde references), but it also depicts an (admittedly thin) slice of local reality, if with an exaggerated comic spin.

Placed in an unfamiliar environment (i.e., a home party) without clearly defined social roles (e.g., company employee) and lubricated by alcohol, his characters flounder, flail about and otherwise behave in ways recognizably human — and Japanese.

The standout in the excellent cast (who also appeared in the play) is veteran Kami Hiraiwa as Haruko. She turns what could have been a standard movie catfight into an unexpectedly inspiring battle for self-definition. And she performs an uninhibited dance that proves Haruko has more going for her than those white arms.

But just as the face of Helen of Troy famously launched 1,000 ships, Hiraiwa’s gloriously alabaster wings give flight (with a few dips) to an entertaining film.

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