Cinema abounds with tales of imposters and con artists, but some of the most interesting stories are the ones where people get wise to a deception and decide to go along with it anyway. In “His Lost Name,” a young drifter arrives in a rural backwater under a fake identity, only to get sucked into a relationship with someone who needs the lie even more than he does.

When aging carpenter Tetsuro (Kaoru Kobayashi) finds a young man (Yuya Yagira) unconscious by a riverside, with a discarded bouquet floating nearby, he takes the stranger home and nurses him back to health. The new arrival gives his name as Shinichi but is otherwise vague about his origins, saying only that he came from Tokyo and is revisiting the area to do “a little soul-searching.” Yet his evasiveness is matched by the older man’s eagerness for him to stay.

Tetsu takes him on as an apprentice at his furniture workshop, where the other staff give him a warm welcome, apparently unfazed by the fact that “Shinichi” has all the social graces of a serial killer worrying that people are about to find the corpses buried in his garden. When a local policeman comes calling, he stiffens; when a co-worker tries to take his photo, he breaks his phone.

His Lost Name (Yoake)
Run Time 113 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Jan. 17

The mystery of the young man’s identity is actually less interesting than Tetsu’s reasons for wanting to make him a permanent houseguest and take the place of a departed son called — you guessed it — Shinichi. Even as Tetsu prepares for his impending marriage to an employee, he seems more focused on grooming his potential heir, and his mounting desperation is the most intriguing thing going on here.

In different hands, “His Lost Name” might have turned into a twisty psychological thriller, but debuting writer-director Nanako Hirose is an acolyte of Hirokazu Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa, and prefers to depict her story in muted realist tones. More than Kore-eda, the film resembles Nishikawa’s “Sway” and “Dear Doctor,” which examine the lies people tell to sustain themselves. However, it’s less involving than either, as if the frost encrusting the film’s wintery landscapes has penetrated to its emotional core.

Part of the problem is with Yagira, who overplays his character’s diffidence at the expense of any quality that would explain how easily he insinuates himself within the community. It’s a frustratingly two-dimensional performance from an actor capable of far more nuanced work, and honestly doesn’t get much better on a second viewing.

Cinematographer Hiroki Takano’s verite camerawork, seemingly shot without recourse to artificial lighting, captures the drabness of the rural setting nicely. At the same time, it doesn’t bring the sense of immediacy you might expect from such a documentary-style approach, while leaving a few key moments so shrouded in darkness as to be practically inscrutable.

There’s still plenty to appreciate in “His Lost Name,” including strong performances from Kobayashi and Young Dais, and a crepuscular score by Tara Jane O’Neil, which makes a welcome change from the dainty piano soundtracks that dominate these kinds of movies. It’s just a shame that Hirose’s tale of mutually assured deception never seems to get out of second gear. A story this juicy shouldn’t leave you feeling only half full.

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