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When we first see Yoko (Nanami Kasamatsu), the stone-faced heroine of “Me & My Brother’s Mistress,” she’s looking right into the camera lens. Then she raises a camera of her own and starts taking photos, capturing her older brother, Kenji (Satoshi Iwago), emerging from a love hotel with someone who definitely isn’t the woman he’s about to marry.

Yoko might make a good paparazzo someday, but for now she’s just a high school student, and her promiscuous sibling is all she’s got. Orphaned nine years earlier, the pair have been living together happily enough, and Kenji talks eagerly about making his fiancee, Kaho (Hachi Nekome), part of the family.

So why is he carrying on with another woman? Encouraged by her bubbly school pal Xiaomei (the single-named Taiwanese actress Yobi), Yoko trails her brother’s mistress to a cafe and confronts her over a plate of spaghetti. But the expected fireworks never happen: The woman, Misa (Yui Murata), is both more sincere and vulnerable than Yoko had anticipated, and they fall into an unlikely alliance.

Me & My Brother’s Mistress (Orokamono)
Rating
Run Time 96 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 20

That’s just the first surprise in this smartly written indie comedy, co-directed by first-time feature helmers Takashi Haga and Sho Suzuki. Though the plot sounds like something straight out of a daytime TV drama, the film constantly finds ways to subvert expectations.

Yoko keeps a copy of Jane Austen’s “Emma” in her drawer and, like that book’s protagonist, she keeps meddling where she probably shouldn’t. As she spends more time with Misa, her sympathies start to shift, and she rashly proposes that they try to break up the wedding. If there’s one thing all the women in the film can agree on, it’s that Kenji is being a jerk.

These characters are recognizable types, but they don’t behave in stereotypical ways. It’s hard to imagine a more contrasting pair than Kaho and Misa: the former is short, frumpy and a whiz in the kitchen; the latter is like a toy poodle in human form. Yet both of them are afforded a sense of agency, and prove themselves to be smarter than people are giving them credit for.

Screenwriter Masataka Numata’s dialogue can be quite witty in places, including an ongoing repartee between Yoko and Xiaomei, who tries out the Japanese colloquialisms she’s gleaned from reading manga. There are also some good face-offs between the main characters, even if the static direction in these scenes can leave them seeming closer to a filmed stage play.

Kasamatsu is a wonderfully deadpan lead, with an aura that reminds me of a young Noriko Eguchi, though there’s little chemistry between her and Murata. The latter initially struck me as a bit flat, but she manages to suggest the quiet desperation of someone who’s realizing she won’t be able to get by on her looks forever.

The film only really stumbles at its climax, which is slackly executed, and succumbs to the kind of TV cliches that it had managed to resist until then. It’s a damp finish to a movie that’s fresher than most of what’s playing in cinemas at the moment. Though it’s only getting an extremely limited release, starting with a screening in Tokyo on Nov. 20, “Me & My Brother’s Mistress” is worth seeking out.

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