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MOVIES: (LFF 2018) Asako I & II - Review

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Looking at the pain of romance, chance, love and loss, Asako I & II is a nearly excellent melodrama, full of charming moments that doesn't shy away from packing an emotional punch. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's direction is fantastic and makes the most out of some excellent shots, but the whole experience is rather underwhelmed by its lacklustre ending, which comes out of nowhere and almost undercuts everything that came before it. But what is there however, is pure gold, making the most out of its circumstances.

The film follows Erika Karata's Asako and explores her relationship, first with her boyfriend in Act One, and then, for the bulk of the film, with someone who happens to look like his body double. Both boyfriend and the lookalike are played by Masahiro Higashide, and they couldn't be any more different. Baku is the boyfriend, a party-goer who may or may not be mixed up in something dangerous, often disappearing for more than necessary, providing a source of constant worry to Asako. One moment Baku says he's going out to get bread, but doesn't turn up until the next day. Do you believe his story that he comes up with for Asako or not? The film keeps you on edge with Baku for most of the time he's on the screen, and the most unpredictable scenes of the film come whenever he's around.

Ryohei on the other is the more down-to-earth, friendly hardworking citizen who is more reliable than Baku. He's essentially the boy next door, and the film devotes a significant amount of time to his developing relationship with Asako in the middle act, to the point where you almost even forget about Baku at all. But Asako can't quite let him go, and it's an interesting push and pull that would be fairly cliched, were it not for the heart that director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi pours into this film. It's a compelling journey from the experienced director, who makes the most out of several comedic moments that always drew laughs from the screening that I watched it in.

It's a coming of age story that is incredibly unpredictable for its genre, and although that is almost refreshing to see a drama that isn't paint-by-numbers, the ending that the film goes for, say for about the last thirty minutes or so, drags it down. It doesn't feel earned and almost feels like a cheap shock twist, but plays up to the nature of just how messy and complicated romantic feelings can be, especially when they involve falling for two people who look exactly the same.

The first meeting of Asako and Baku feels almost like a music video in how it's acted, and starting almost as its own cold open, you wonder if the whole film will have a fantastical, dreamlike feel to it. There are slow-motion firecrackers, and there are on-the-spot kisses. It's quickly revealed that it's framed as a story being told over drinks, yet given the sort of characters both Asako and Baku are, it doesn't take much of a leap to suggest that is what the film could be going for.

But the film likes to play against our expectations and it does so admirably. Most of the dramas that I have reviewed at LFF so far have been excellent character studies and Asako I & II is no different in that regard, putting the focus on character over story and as a result, you'll realise just how much you care about the characters by the final act. Which is in part, one of the reasons why it just feels so cheap.

It would also not be a review without a mention of Jitan, who it goes without saying, is rightly deserving of the best cat award at LFF this year so far. It'll be hard to beat him, too.

As of typing this review, Tickets for Asako I & II are currently available on Thursday 11 October and can be purchased here.

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