Once a leading director of pinku films — Japan’s distinctive contribution to the soft-porn genre — Takahisa Zeze has long since expanded into straight indie features, from the whimsical fantasy “Dog Star” (2002) to the revenge drama “Heaven’s Story” (2010), with its extreme violence and length (278 minutes). More recently, he has also become a maker of commercial films, including the hit medical melodrama, “The 8-Year Engagement” (2017).
His latest film, “The Promised Land,” is more on the “Heaven’s Story” side of the spectrum, though it’s based on two short stories by best-selling author Shuichi Yoshida and is pitched at the large audience for murder mysteries here.
The film is ambitious to a fault, examining everything from the decline of rural Japan to the traditional ostracism of the socially marginalized, be they Japanese or not.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||129 mins.|
It’s also unforgiving of the inattentive with its many shifts back and forth in time, some signaled by changes in color tones (with washed-out shades indicating the distant past) and some confusingly not.
Finally, the film’s depictions of men abusing women can be hard — or enraging — to watch, with the abused mostly shrugging it off.
All this is Zeze being Zeze, who, in his indie films, freely experiments with form and relentlessly tests audience limits to powerful and disturbing effect.
His main story, based on a real incident, is simple enough in outline. Two girls who are close friends part at a fork in the road. One arrives home safe and sound, the other doesn’t. Searchers comb the countryside, but only come up with the missing girl’s school bag. Suspicion falls on Takeshi (Go Ayano), a young man traumatized by the bullying and violence he and his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) have endured from the locals, including her brutal lover. One of his few allies, the elderly Goro (Akira Emoto), happens to be the grandfather of the disappeared girl — and turns against him. But Takeshi has a solid alibi and stays free.
Flash forward 12 years. Another girl goes missing and Takeshi is once again fingered as the suspect. Meanwhile, the now teenage survivor of the previous incident, Tsumugi (Hana Sugisaki), lives with an unbearable burden of guilt — and has found in Takeshi a kindred wounded spirit. But a smirking, alpha-male classmate (Nijiro Murakami) is determined to make her his.
Meanwhile, Zenjiro (Koichi Sato), a middle-aged man who lives alone with his dog near the fatal road fork, is still mourning his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) years after her tragic death. Then a scheme to use his beekeeping business to stimulate the local economy goes awry, and he finds himself cast of out of the community and descending into madness.
Zeze’s script uses Takeshi and Zenjiro’s common isolation to thematically bind the two stories together, but it’s not always clear what these two characters are doing in the same movie, save to underline the bitter irony of the title. The ending, though, has a pathos made stronger by the presence of both. And for all its darkness and despair, “The Promised Land” celebrates the natural beauty of its setting, with sweeping drone shots of radiant fields, and even holds out hope, though it comes too late for some. Call it, more accurately, “Paradise Lost” — or never found in the first place.