Con artists in movies are typically likeable rogues who prey on the deserving. The title character of Yuichi Hibi’s “Erica 38,” who is neither “Erica” nor “38,” is closer to the unlikable reality: A woman who dupes others with no discernible guilt or remorse, even when her victims are on the verge of ruin or suicide. She takes lovers, but the only thing she trusts is cold, hard cash.

Based on actual events, the film is something of a dark docudrama that depicts the protagonist’s rise and fall with no moralizing or tear-wringing.

It is also a psychological portrait of an ordinary girl who was forever scarred by her father’s callous betrayal of her mother. But the film’s attempt to draw a straight line from the traumas of the heroine’s youth to the crimes of her present doesn’t persuade.

Erica 38 (Erika 38)
Run Time 103 mins.
Opens June 7

More convincing is the performance of Miyoko Asada as the con artist — real name, Satoko Watabe; real age, 60. A former singer who made a successful transition to actress and TV personality, Asada fully inhabits the character, from her surface affability and relentless drive to her essential hollowness. Her Satoko doesn’t plead for sympathy and her stoicism in the face of disaster becomes somehow not contemptible — although I wouldn’t go as far as “admirable.”

As the story begins, Satoko is speaking earnestly to a group of potential investors about a business scheme in Cambodia. Afterward, a canny old tycoon tells her the plan is nonsense. Without realistic expectations of returns, he tells her, people with real money will never invest. But he gives her his business card and Satoko flashes a winning smile. We could be in an inspirational tale of a plucky older woman’s struggles to legitimately succeed.

But a flashback to three years earlier reveals the less edifying truth. Then a club hostess by night and a saleswoman of dubious health supplements by day, Satoko is scouted by Nobuko Ito (Midori Kiuchi), an elegantly kimonoed businesswoman who introduces her to Ikuo Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), a charismatic spellbinder peddling a predecessor to the above scheme. Satoko falls into their orbit — and into the handsome Ikuo’s bed.

In addition to being lovers, Satoko and Ikuo turn out to be a crack sales team, signing up investors at a rapid clip and raking in cash. Early on he makes it clear he has no intention of paying his suckers — that is, investors — their promised dividends. Catching his drift, Satoko bats nary an eyelid.

Naturally, their scam starts to unravel and Ikuo turns out to be — surprise, surprise — a phony in more ways than one. Satoko absconds to Thailand where she finds a young lover (Woraphop Klaisang) and a new identity as the 38-year-old Erica — but escape from her old life is not easy.

Cinematographer Hiroo Takaoka paints this story in dreary, washed-out shades that suggest exhaustion and decline. Even Thailand looks less vibrantly sunny than painfully glaring, as if viewed by hungover eyes at noon.

Underlining this down mood is Kirin Kiki as Satoko’s aged mother in her last, brief performance before her death last year at age 75. A frail, vacant presence, Mom nonetheless answers her daughter’s invitation to joint suicide with a steely, “I’m fine as it is.”

Satoko, however, is not fine. The master scammer is scammed by love — or rather a sucker’s version of it.

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