Japanese films about forbidden love go back decades, but the definition of “forbidden” has changed, if more so abroad than here. Hideo Jojo’s 2022 sex comedy “Love Nonetheless” would be a hard sell in Hollywood since its story of a 16-year-old girl pursuing a 30-year-old guy as a marriage partner would raise eyebrows at the pair’s inappropriate age difference.
The same is true of Sang-il Lee’s “Wandering.” Based on Yu Nagira’s novel about a 9-year-old girl who lives contently with a 19-year-old male stranger for two months until the police arrest him as her kidnapper and presumed abuser, this film may seem on its face a feature-length apologia for pedophilia. But as seen in his previous films, “Villain” (2010) and “Rage” (2016), Lee tends to focus on unconventional relationships on the social margins against a backdrop of crime. With “Wandering,” he once again makes compelling drama from dark and even dubious materials.
Fumi Saeki (Tori Matsuzaka) has a Lolita complex, but his interest in Sarasa Kanai (Tamaki Shiratori), a girl he happens to meet, is platonic and the film presents her choice to stay with him as voluntary. Sarasa, who was sexually abused by a male cousin in her aunt’s home after her father’s death and mother’s abandonment, enjoys a new sense of freedom and safety with the tolerant, understanding Fumi, who lets her gorge on ice cream and loll about watching TV. With his arrest, her idyll comes to a jarring end.