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‘The Man from the Sea’: A Japanese savior washes up in Aceh

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Koji Fukada leads a younger generation of Japanese directors who are more internationally minded than their predecessors. He even used French export titles for his first two features — “Hospitalite” (2010) and “Au Revoir l’Ete” (2013) — reflecting the influence of French cinema, particularly the work of Eric Rohmer. Also, he cast American actress Bryerly Long as the star of “Sayonara,” his 2015 sci-fi movie about a dying woman being cared for by a humanoid robot in a doomed world.

In his latest, the evocative — if frustratingly diffuse — “The Man from the Sea,” Fukada takes this internationalism several steps further: Based on his own script, he shot the film in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh Province. Two of his lead actors are Indonesian and much of the dialogue is in Indonesian and English.

The main story is less local than transcendental, though. While referencing the Japanese wartime occupation and the 2004 tsunami that killed an estimated 167,000 people in Aceh, it has its own mythos unrelated to the Islam most Acehnese follow. It’s like setting the second coming on Enoshima: unexpected if not necessarily absurd.

The Man from the Sea (Umi o Kakeru)
Rating
Run Time 107 mins
Language JAPANESE, INDONESIAN and ENGLISH

But the film’s “savior” — a nameless Japanese man (Dean Fujioka) who mysteriously washes up on the Aceh coast speaking a smattering of Japanese and Indonesian — works his miracles in smiling silence, with no messages save for the unspoken sort. Also, his relationship to the other characters is less than obvious; for long stretches he subsides into the background, like a mime at a busy street fair. His story finally builds to a surprising, headlong climax, but it belongs in a different, more tightly focused movie.

In the foreground is the conventional story of Takako (Mayu Tsuruta), a Japanese woman living in Banda Aceh with her college-age son, Takashi (Taiga), and doing disaster relief work for an NPO. When Ilma (Sekar Sari), a journalist-in-training, and Chris (Adipati Dolken), Takashi’s college pal, are interviewing her, Takako first hears about the aforementioned man.

Dubbed “Laut,” or “Sea” in Indonesian, the man is soon ensconced in her house. Meanwhile, Takashi’s cousin Sachiko (Junko Abe) arrives for her first visit to Indonesia.

We soon see that Laut possesses supernatural powers, though they are not immediately apparent to those around him. Instead Sachiko, Takashi, Ilma and Chris are more absorbed in the dramas of their own young lives, as well as dealing with the past, from the personally traumatic to the ancestrally tragic. Each member of this quartet takes the spotlight at one time or another, though Sachiko, a sharp-eyed observer who serves as an audience surrogate, holds it the longest.

Chris has feelings for Sachiko but is tongue-tied in her presence, while Ilma, who broke off her relationship with Chris because of unexplained family differences, finds a friend in Takashi — and possibly more.

This romantic roundelay is familiar from “Au Revoir l’Ete,” Fukada’s most Rohmer-esque film. But its comic bite and erotic spice is mostly absent in “The Man from the Sea.” Instead we have the spooky realization that Laut can do more than what a female journalist investigating him calls “magic tricks.”

But if he is a god come to Earth, can he not only heal the living but also lay Aceh’s many unquiet ghosts to rest? The film’s answer may not be rational but feels anciently wise, especially if your gods happen to be mercurially Greek.