Film / Reviews

'Family of Strangers': An admirable ode to the institutionalized

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

The amiable rakugo storyteller Shofukutei Tsurube gets to show some grit in this earnest effort by Hideyuki Hirayama, filmed at a real-life psychiatric hospital in Nagano Prefecture. He plays Hidemaru “Hide” Kajiki, a triple murderer given an honorable discharge from death row — and left in a wheelchair — after his execution fails to have the desired effect.

Not having anywhere better to send him, the authorities place Hide in an institution, where he spends most of his time crafting bowls and vases in the on-site pottery workshop. He gets along well with most of the residents, not least Chuya “Chu” Tsukamoto (Go Ayano), a diffident young man who had himself committed after he started hearing voices.

The pair appear to be the most well-adjusted people there, living alongside patients with more obvious disorders played by character actors including Hana Kino, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Ryusuke Komakine. Chu is sufficiently compos mentis to be allowed out on shopping trips to the local town, though when his family arrives with bad news about his ailing mother, he takes a turn for the worse.

Family of Strangers (Heisa Byoto: Sorezore no Asa)
Rating
Run Time 117 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOV. 1

The latest arrival, 18-year-old Yuki (Nana Komatsu), has been left pregnant by her abusive stepfather and gets dumped at the hospital by her mother after trying to kill herself. Like Hide, she doesn’t really belong there, but together with Chu the trio form an unlikely family unit, drawn together by the fact that they don’t have anywhere else to go. However, their relationship is put to the test when a violent patient (Shibukawa) starts making eyes at Yuki, and Hide threatens to revert to past type.

Hirayama, directing his own adaptation of a 1994 novel by Housei Hahakigi, depicts the hospital and its residents with commendable sensitivity. There’s solid attention to procedural detail, and the film avoids the temptation to sensationalize or use its characters as comic relief, even during a karaoke sequence that could easily have descended into quirkiness.

“Family of Strangers” is at its strongest when it aims for naturalism, watching the protagonists’ relationships develop against the backdrop of the hospital’s daily routines. When Hirayama inserts flashbacks to spell out backstories that were already strongly implied, it’s a little heavy-handed, while the death of a minor character is milked for more dramatic effect than is earned.

Yet the rich milieu of the film’s first half risks becoming a distraction later on. Hirayama’s insistence on giving screen time to as many people as possible leaves him little space to lay the groundwork for the story’s later turn toward melodrama with a focus on its central trio.

An act of violent retribution is staged with masterful tension, and a climactic court scene is powerfully acted. Komatsu has seldom been as stretched as she is here, and she rises to the occasion, while Go extracts greater pathos from what’s essentially a repeat of the performance he gave in Takahisa Zeze’s recently released “The Promised Land.” For Shofukutei, the film offers his juiciest role since Miwa Nishikawa’s “Dear Doctor” (2009).

Yet there’s no getting past the awkwardness of the film’s final-act pivot, and the emotional gut punch it was aiming for never quite lands. In trying to be both “Dead Man Walking” (1995) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Family of Strangers” ends up feeling curiously slight.

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