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‘Asako I & II’: Things are vague in this girl-meets-boy-meets-boy’s doppleganger tale

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

“There will never be another you” goes the old song. Then again, some people believe in doppelgangers, doubles to living humans who are ghostly in form and malign in intent.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Asako I & II,” which screened in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, blends that musical sentiment with the spook factor of a dodgy double. The title heroine, Asako (Erika Karata), successively falls in love with two guys who could be identical twins, but are strangers to each other and polar opposites in character (both are played by the versatile Masahiro Higashide). One is flighty, self-centered and charismatic; the other loyal, considerate and ever so slightly dull. In romantic drama terms, no contest.

Based on a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, “Asako I & II” was an unexpected choice for the Cannes competition, that bastion of cinematic art. Hamaguchi, who co-wrote the script, fleshes out his gimmicky premise with the sort of close character observation found in “Happy Hour,” his much-praised 2015 ensemble drama, but his basic story is that box-office evergreen: one woman, serving as an audience stand-in, torn between two men.

Asako I & II (Netemo Sametemo)
Rating
Run Time 119 mins.
Language JAPANESE

Newcomer Erika Karata plays Asako as sweet and naive, but she also has an impulsive, forceful side that makes her more than a nice-girl nullity. She is surrounded by women with strong personalities and who live beyond their “friends of the heroine” function. Their stories illuminate her torn-between-two-lovers dilemma as well as the shifting relationship between reality and image, truth and lie. As Asako learns, these dichotomies can co-exist in the same person — or be found behind two identical visages.

The story begins with a chance encounter on an Osaka street. Asako and the tall, handsome Baku (Higashide) lock eyes and, in a blink, they are a couple, despite the warning of Asako’s prescient friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) that “he will make you cry.”

So it plays out, since Baku is prone to sudden disappearances that he explains with unconvincing excuses. Then one day he goes shopping for shoes — and takes what seems to be a permanent hike.

Two years later in Tokyo, Ryohei (Higashide again), the diligent employee of a sake maker, chats up Asako, now a coffee shop barista. Thinking he is Baku, she asks him questions that baffle him, while his answers only confuse her. The chemistry she had with Baku is totally absent with this look-alike stranger.

Later, Asako goes to a photography exhibition with Maya (Rio Yamashita), an aspiring actress, but the ticket taker tells them they are too late to enter. Ryohei appears out of the blue and fast-talks them into the gallery. As they become acquainted, Asako begins to see him as more than a bizarrely familiar guy in a suit. Soon she and Ryohei are hanging out with Maya and Ryohei’s tart-tongued pal Kushihashi (Koji Seto).

Is it a spoiler to say that love blooms among this foursome? Not really, just as it will surprise no one when Baku makes a return.

The resulting choices that Asako makes may also seem overly obvious, but the film doesn’t sort into any of the usual genre categories, just as its ending is intriguingly ambiguous, though that may just be my own skepticism talking.

Once you’ve seen double in the kaleidoscope of romance, can you ever go back to one true love?