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Films about lovers on the run have been mostly a Western genre (the British Film Institute’s best 10 of such films mentions none from Asia), but examples do exist here.

The latest is Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Ride or Die,” which is based on a manga by Ching Nakamura, and will drop on Netflix on April 15. Hiroki’s first film project for the streaming giant, the film has his signature stylistic elements, from lyrical tracking shots of the two protagonists in joyous motion to closeups of them in soul-baring breakdowns, but with no tear-jerking manipulation whatsoever. He is a director with visual flair, and a sure sensitivity to his characters’ inner lives.

Hiroki alternates between commercial dramas and smaller, more personal projects, though he has told me more than once that to him they’re “all films.” “Ride or Die” is in the former category, with a story that kicks off with the murder of an abusive husband. That plot point may have thrilled Nakamura’s younger readers, but it initially struck this adult reviewer as cartoonishly overblown. Nonviolent solutions never seem to occur to the killer, Rei (Kiko Mizuhara), who is bent on avenging a high school crush she is still besotted with as both near age 30.

Ride or Die (Kanojo)
Rating
Run Time 142 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens April 15

Rei is the out lesbian daughter of a well-off family who has a seemingly comfortable life with an older lover until Nanae (Honami Sato), her former crush, reappears. Raised in poverty and stuck in an abusive marriage, Nanae is desperate to escape her life. But to Rei, she is still the enigmatic girl who was impossible to forget even after a gap of 10 years.

In a bravura long take, Rei wends her way through a crowded club to the bar, where a sharp-eyed man is sitting. Drinking heavily, she rouses his interest and then his lust. But once they are alone, she kills him — and falls to her knees in shock. The dead man is Nanae’s husband, and Rei realizes the enormity of what she has done.

This story is not told linearly, and in flashbacks Rei and Nanae are played by younger actors, but the script by Nami Kikkawa keeps confusion at bay and the film’s focus on the present.

Also, Rei and Nanae are not framed as blameless ideals. We see the hurt in the eyes of Rei’s abandoned partner. We wonder how Nanae can ask a woman she describes as “neither a lover nor a friend” to kill on her behalf.

Even so, as they run from the law on foot, by car and, in one exhilarating, headlong sequence, on a delivery guy’s stolen scooter, they bond for real, emotionally and physically. And their adventure, which seems doomed to end badly, acquires tragic overtones.

Mizuhara, an in-demand model and actor, tosses aside her trademark glamor as she shows, with stark vulnerability, the emotional toll one act and one obsession have taken on Rei. Meanwhile, Sato plays Nanae as more than a passive victim-slash-love interest: A long-simmering anger animates her.

These two bring a total commitment to their intimate scenes, at which former pinku eiga (erotic film) director Hiroki is a master, giving a deeper, explicitly sensual meaning to their characters’ passion and fate. In Japan, “Ride or Die” might have been slapped with an R-18 rating; on Netflix it soars unfettered into the world.

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