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Now showing in Hong Kong

Film review: A Bride for Rip Van Winkle – Shunji Iwai returns in fine form

Director best known for Love Letter is back after a long hiatus from feature film-making with a tale of relationships and morals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 9:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 10:50am

In Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, the character Rip Van Winkle is a well-loved villager who wanders off into the mountains and returns the next morning, only to find that 20 years – and the American revolutionary war – have passed him by. It would seem revered Japanese writer-director Shunji Iwai has taken a leaf out of Rip Van Winkle’s book.

After establishing himself as one of his home country’s top filmmakers with such contemporary gems as Love Letter, Swallowtail Butterfly and Hana and Alice, Iwai had gone on a 12-year sabbatical from live-action feature filmmaking in Japan until he directed A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, partly as a response to the 3/11 tsunami. The three-hour roller coaster of emotions marks a welcome return to form.

READ MORE: Love Letter director Shunji Iwai on his long road back to feature-film making

A convoluted tale of capricious human relationships and questionable moral conduct, the film is anchored by the unassuming charisma of Haru Kuroki, winner of the Silver Bear award for best actress at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival for her part in Yoji Yamada’s The Little House. Kuroki plays Nanami, a gullible young woman who can’t quite believe her fortune when she finds a decent husband on social media.

With her parents divorced and no other relatives to speak of, Nanami seeks the help of an online friend, the fixer Amuro (Go Ayano), who duly hires paid actors to play her family members at the wedding banquet. Almost as soon as she halts her feeble attempt at a teaching career to become a full-time housewife, however, Nanami is notified by the manipulative Amuro – now playing detective – that her husband has started an affair.

Once her marriage disintegrates, Nanami begins to take up odd jobs arranged by Amuro, subsequently befriending the eccentric Mashiro (singer-songwriter Cocco), with whom she moves into an unoccupied mansion as fellow housekeepers. Nanami and Mashiro’s mutual yearning to connect faintly echoes All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), another cyberspace-originated drama by Iwai, and the pair’s relationship evolves in an unexpected direction.

Although the film largely derives its narrative momentum from Amuro’s multiple acts of fraud, credit is due to Iwai in that his story barely acknowledges Nanami’s probable sense of disillusionment, instead arriving at an unlikely state of bliss for its hopelessly romantic characters. It takes a considerably sophisticated filmmaker to find genuine rapport amid false fronts and elaborate role-playing.

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is released in two versions in Hong Kong cinemas: a 179-minute “director’s cut” that preserves Iwai’s original vision, and a 119-minute cut that retains the basic narrative framework but leaves out much of the finer detail. For a film that’s less about the destination than the journey itself, serious movie-goers could do well to seek out Iwai’s unabridged account.

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle opens on March 17

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