Film / Reviews

'Cherry Blossoms and Demons': Swan song remains an ugly duckling

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

The late Kirin Kiki maintained such an industrious work schedule that moviegoers have had multiple chances to pay their last respects since she passed away last September. “Cherry Blossoms and Demons” is her actual swan song, albeit one that all but the most ardent fan can probably skip.

This dopey supernatural drama is the third Japan-themed movie from German director Doris Dorrie, though the first to get a proper theatrical release here. Local audiences may be bemused to discover that it’s actually a sequel to the earlier “Cherry Blossoms” (2008), in which a recently bereaved widower, Rudi, travels to Japan to fulfil his late wife’s dream of becoming a butoh dancer.

The focus this time is on Rudi’s youngest son, Karl (Golo Euler), who has slipped from professional success into alcoholism and despair. He makes quite an entrance: gate-crashing his estranged daughter’s birthday party, steaming drunk and wearing a panda head mask. At night, he is woken by a presence looming over his bed — the mare of “nightmare” fame — that leaves him cowering in the bathroom, whimpering for help.

Cherry Blossoms and Demons (Inochi Mijikashi Koi Seyo Otome)
Rating
Run Time 117 mins.
Language ENGLISH, GERMAN, JAPANESE
Opens Aug. 16

His prayers are answered when an unexpected guest turns up on his doorstep. It’s Yu (Aya Irizuki), the kooky dancer who schooled Rudi in the art of butoh during his trip to Tokyo 10 years prior. She also ended up becoming one of the main beneficiaries in Rudi’s will, which would explain why his son isn’t overjoyed to see her.

Nevertheless, they both head to the old family home, where Karl is reacquainted with the ghostly presences of his late parents, in scenes shot with a blurry drunk camera effect that’s more liable to induce nausea than a sense of mystery.

Yu immediately proves to be more at ease with the spirit forces that have been plaguing Karl, inviting one of them downstairs for a cup of tea. But when they visit a local castle, a Japanese tourist pulls him aside and warns that his companion isn’t all she seems: apparently she’s a “demon,” too.

Karl’s journey to find some kind of spiritual peace will take him through family reunions, near-death experiences, and eventually to Japan. That’s where he meets Kiki’s character, and she gets a few nice scenes. Their conversations via translation app are a delight, though her big dramatic moment — featured prominently in the film’s publicity — is a rather-too-obvious quote from Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.”

Director Dorrie’s muddle of spirituality, Freudian psychology, politics and family history occasionally recalls the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but she’s never able to sustain the spell for long. Part of the problem lies with Irizuki, whose dancing is more bewitching than her overly affected performance. Yet it’s hard to imagine a more seasoned actress doing better as a character that’s part pixie dream-girl, part siren — and pure Asian fetish object.

When she’s off-screen, the film perceptibly improves. Euler does valiantly in a role that gets more ridiculous as the story progresses, and his character’s fears about his masculinity assume a very literal form. Birgit Minichmayr brings a wonderfully tart touch as Karl’s older sister.

Yet it’s hard to fathom the film getting a cinematic release in Japan — even during the dog days of August — without Kiki’s name attached. Demons may exist, but some things are beyond the realms of possibility.