The weight of expectations — from family, friends, community — can be tough on any young person. Now imagine those people once paid $5 million to save your life.

That’s the premise behind “Five Million Dollar Life,” the debut film from director Sungho Moon. It’s about a young man named Mirai Takatsuki (Ayumu Mochizuki), whose hometown pitched in to get him a life-saving heart transplant when he was a child. To add to the pressure, a local TV station airs a yearly special on Mirai, giving everyone the chance to keep an eye on the young man they helped save.

Mirai, now on the verge of graduating from high school, does an admirable job of keeping up appearances, telling the TV cameras his life goal is to become a doctor “in order to help others the way I was helped.” In reality, though, Mirai is an aimless teen, sick of the “bogus” act he’s been forced to put on since childhood. The pressure is so bad that when someone on social media suggests he “quit” his bogus life, Mirai heartily agrees. But that same user reminds him it would be unfair to die with a $5 million debt over his head. “Fine,” Mirai responds, “I’ll earn $5 million then kill myself.” What follows is a journey across Japan filled with various part-time jobs, some less conventional than others.

Five Million Dollar Life (Go Oku En no Jinsei)
Run Time 112 mins.
Opens July 20

If “Five Million Dollar Life” sounds like one of those movies where the main character goes on a journey, meets a cast of interesting people and has an epiphany about the value of life, well, you’re halfway right. It does feature a few eyeroll-inducing tropes, including plenty of kindly strangers (and even a wizened homeless man who knows the true meaning of life). But director Moon and co-writer Naomi Hiruta turn many of those cliches on their heads.

In one such twist, Mirai finds himself involved in sex work, but because he’s male, we see things from a less-familiar angle — including a look into the mentality of a woman who might visit such an establishment.

Moon and Hiruta also challenge the timeworn premise that the world is populated with people who are nice and people who aren’t. Instead, posits a gangster who gets Mirai out of a jam, in reality there are “some people in the world who you feel are worth being nice to.”

Thanks to Mochizuki’s excellent performance, Mirai certainly feels like one of those charmed individuals. It’s never clear whether he’s as painfully naive as he appears, or whether his doe-eyed appearance is a tool he’s perfected after years of media attention. Points also go to the cast of misfits Mirai meets along the way, from day laborers to sex shop patrons to men hired to clean the homes of those who have committed suicide — all of whom shed light onto lesser-known bits of Japanese society. One actor I wish had been given more to do is Naomi Nishida, who plays Mirai’s mother. The pressures on the mom of someone leading a $5 million life are alluded to, but Nishida’s role essentially boils down to waiting worried by the phone.

“Five Million Dollar Life” is the product of the New Cinema Project, an internet-based platform set up to fund new films via audition. Admirable as alternate sources of funding like this can be, they often end up producing projects that feel like glorified student films. This one, however, is remarkably well-constructed, especially for a first-time director. Warning: you may leave the theater wondering how much money your own life is worth.

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