Film review: Kampai! For the Love of Sake – wishy-washy documentary on the Japanese rice wine
Rather than telling the viewer anything about the basics of sake and its place in contemporary Japan, film mechanically profiles three enthusiasts for the drink, only one of them Japanese, in a narrative that lacks focus or flow
Foodie documentaries don’t come more wishy-washy than Kampai! For the Love of Sake, which is less about sake than the three advocates of the fermented Japanese rice wine that the film mechanically profiles. Written, directed and edited by the Los Angeles-based Japanese journalist Mirai Konishi, this is a curiously lifeless account of several passionate individuals who have devoted their lives to the trade.
Somewhat arbitrarily, the film flits between interviews and event footage about its trio of working-class experts: John Gauntner, born in the American state of Ohio, who proclaims himself a “sake evangelist” after becoming a writer-journalist specialising in the field; Briton Philip Harper, an Oxford University graduate and the first expat master brewer in Kyoto; and Kosuke Kuji, the committed heir to a family-owned brewery in Iwate prefecture, Japan.
While there’s an extra layer of intrigue to be found in the personal stories of Western geeks of an indigenous Japanese craft, Konishi’s film overplays the exotic angles and pays far too little attention to how the beverage is actually doing in Japan. Audiences expecting to learn about the basics of sake will come out from Kampai! none the wiser about its historical origin or contemporary trends.
It’s also disappointing to see the film spend an inordinate amount of time on its subjects’ personal backgrounds – in the process revealing the coincidence that Gauntner and Harper arrived in Japan at roughly the same time several decades ago – without bothering to connect them in real life in any meaningful way, or spend time on other, conceivably interesting, aspects of their cultural experiences.
An unfocused feature with minimal regard for context and narrative flow, Kampai! takes a long, hard look at its subjects’ obsession with sake, but doesn’t keep the viewer’s interest. The best way to screen this might well be as an infomercial at sake conventions, where viewers are free to sample minutes-long clips set against an incessant soundtrack of bland, easy-listening music.
Kampai! For the Love of Sake opens on July 20
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