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Non-Japanese filmmakers based in Japan are a varied lot, but they all face the fact that certain doors open to their Japanese counterparts — from directing jobs at TV networks to distribution deals with major film companies — are pretty much closed to them. And yet some make films hard to distinguish from the local product, as if they’ve mastered the Japanese “way of film” despite never quite becoming industry insiders.

One who has pulled off this feat is Anshul Chauhan, who came to Japan from India in 2011 and has since worked as an animator, CG artist and filmmaker. His first feature, the woman-in-crisis drama “Bad Poetry Tokyo,” won prizes at festivals here and abroad, including three best actress prizes for lead Shuna Iijima, beginning with the 2018 Osaka Asian Film Festival. For a director who never attended film school and had made only four shorts and a documentary prior to “Bad Poetry Tokyo,” this is a small miracle — or rather evidence of a large talent.

Watching it, I was reminded of recent films by Takahisa Zeze (“The Promised Land”), Junji Sakamoto (“Another World”) and Ryuichi Hiroki (“Side Job.”) set in the quiet Japanese countryside, but full of unquiet emotions and disturbing violence. And without Chauhan’s name on the credits, I never would have guessed “Bad Poetry Tokyo” was by a non-Japanese, though it is rougher, partly by intent, than the work of his distinguished seniors.

Bad Poetry Tokyo (Tokyo Fuonshi)
Rating
Director Anshul Chauhan
Run Time 116
Language JAPANESE
Opens JAN. 18

Photographed by Maxim Golomidov, the film has a handheld, shot-on-the-fly look, though the headache-inducing jitters common to this style are thankfully few. Instead, it creates a feeling of urgency, intimacy and anxiety, as though a bad situation is about to become infinitely worse. The story of its troubled heroine, Jun Fujita (Iijima), is more of a waking nightmare than a social document or a personal journey.

We first meet Jun as an unknown actress auditioning for a film to be shot in Canada. Her portrayal of her character’s violent meltdown is uninhibited and unsettlingly realistic. But her day job — or rather night job — is as a hostess at a fancy Tokyo club where sleeping with customers is expected. Though she is living with Taka (Orson Mochizuki), a ponytailed waiter at the club, she says in a voice-over that she has “let countless men violate me.”

And Taka, it soon turns out, is an untrustworthy schemer after Jun’s hard-earned money. He hires a pal for a robbery that leaves Jun bloodied, broke and unshakably suspicious of her erstwhile boyfriend.

Fed up with her life in Tokyo, she returns to her home in the Nagano countryside for the first time in five years. Waiting for her there is her abusive brute of a father, who never told her about the death of her mother. But she also reunites with Yuki (Takashi Kawaguchi), a farmer who has long been carrying a torch for her. A nice guy with a crinkly smile, Yuki seems to offer Jun a way to heal and live in blessed normality. But her past is still pursuing her.

As Jun, Shuna Iijima delivers an emotionally raw, ego-free performance that makes her screaming, flailing audition scene look less like amateurish over-acting and more like an honest expression of her character’s inner turmoil — a turmoil the film does not neatly explain or resolve.

And so, Jun carries her hell with her, into an unknown future.

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