Film / Reviews

'Cafe Funiculi Funicula': Extra spoonfuls of sentimentality make this flick hard to swallow

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

An old-fashioned coffee house serves up a dash of mystery and a great dollop of sentiment in Ayuko Tsukahara’s “Cafe Funiculi Funicula.” Based on a pair of best-selling novels by playwright-turned-author Toshikazu Kawaguchi, this aggressively tear-jerky paean to life, death and past regrets plays like a combination of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” and Netflix’s “Midnight Diner” without the charm or subtlety of either.

At the titular cafe, customers who sit in a particular chair and order a cup of coffee from doe-eyed waitress Kazu (Kasumi Arimura) can be transported back in time to relive a past encounter they had at the shop. There are caveats attached, though — the most important being that they have to wrap things up within the time limit specified by the film’s Japanese title, which translates as “Before the Coffee Gets Cold.”

Anyone who overruns the clock risks taking the place of the woman who hogs the seat during opening hours, immersed in a book and oblivious to those around her, only vacating it to take the occasional toilet break. She’s a ghost, apparently, but you can find similar types loitering at your local Starbucks.

Cafe Funiculi Funicula (Kohi ga Samenai-uchi Ni)
Rating
Run Time 116 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The mystic seat attracts a variety of sorts: people looking to reunite with departed family members, replay an awkward farewell, or have a proper chat with a spouse who’s since succumbed to Alzheimer’s.

Each of these characters is quirkier and more interesting than Arimura’s blandly melancholic heroine, but their stories might have been better served by a TV series rather than a standalone film. Despite solid performances from the likes of Yo Yoshida and Yutaka Matsushige, none of them get enough screen time to earn their emotional pay-offs, all of which are nevertheless milked for maximum effect.

Kawaguchi wrote this story as a play before turning it into a novel, and the film sometimes seems to be overcompensating for the inherent staginess of the material. There’s some very heavy-handed editing and sound design, and Masaru Yokoyama’s soundtrack seldom misses an opportunity to ruin a good moment.

Tsukahara builds up to each time-travel scene with a flurry of action-movie music and gratuitous slo-mo, then shows the customer plunging into a flooded version of the cafe — an effect that might have looked more striking in a year that hadn’t already given us “The Shape of Water.”

Still, the support characters whose stories occupy the first half of the film are much better company than Kazu. Arimura’s performance isn’t so much understated as lifeless, and when the focus shifts to her character’s emotional travails and tentative romance with a university student (Kentaro Ito), the movie grinds to a halt.

As most viewers will guess long before the film reveals it, Kazu also has a moment from her past that she’s keen to revisit, though her coffee-serving duties preclude her from travelling back in time. Will the story resolve this dilemma and give audiences another excuse to reach for their hankies? You bet.

Japanese movie marketing tends to emphasize the weepy bits, and the publicity for “Cafe Funiculi Funicula” is particularly bold: As the poster proclaims, “You’ll cry four times.” But it would take an awfully mushy viewer to get that far. While there are a few moments that resonate, this is a weak brew, culminating in a finish of pure treacle. Cry? I nearly gagged.