Now showing in Hong Kong

Film review: Our Little Sister - Hirokazu Koreeda tugs the heartstrings

Japanese director avoids histrionics in tale of parental desertion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2015, 4:39pm

For those who have followed Hirokazu Koreeda’s feature film career since its early days and witnessed the Japanese writer-director’s steady ascent to the pantheon of contemporary world cinema, the evolution of his attitude towards family dynamics would seem remarkable indeed.

From mourners seeking answers to their spouses’ suicides (MaborosiDistance)  to child abandonment (Nobody Knows) and the bitter regrets entrenched in a family traumatised by a fatal accident (Still Walking), Koreeda’s naturalistic and deceptively unsentimental dramas rarely shy away from the propensity for cruelty inherent in human nature.

But while his recent efforts, I Wish (2011) and child-swap drama Like Father, Like Son (2013),  were both heart-warming stories about young children seeking affection from their largely absent parents, Koreeda – with the arguable exception of his 1998  fantasy After Life  – may have made his gentlest film to date with Our Little Sister.

Although the director’s recurrent theme of parental desertion remains key, this adaptation of the manga Umimachi Diary (Koreeda’s second such attempt, after 2009’s  Air Doll) has few heart-wrenching moments – rather remarkable for a story about three grown-up sisters who take in a step-sibling they never knew before their father’s death.

When headstrong Sachi (Haruka Ayase), laid-back Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and quirky Chika (Kaho) attend the funeral of their long-estranged father, who had remarried twice since he walked out of the Koda family 15 years previously, the sisters are quickly won over by Suzu (Suzu Hirose), the teenage daughter of the patriarch’s second wife.

The serene and emotionally muted film then observes the respective personal concerns of the sisters after they invite Suzu – noticeably neglected by her father’s third and latest wife – to move into their old but cosy ancestral house, once belonged to their late grandmother, in the seaside city of Kamakura.

From there, Koreeda takes his time to immerse the audience in their daily routine – the chatter, food preparation, school and work lives. Even the dreaded return of the trio’s mother (Shinobu Otake),  who abandoned the household shortly after her husband, fails to hurt the good-natured characters’ feelings.

A slice-of-life domestic drama with no place for histrionics, Our Little Sister is an uneventful, if also overwhelmingly life-affirming, family portrait that once again establishes Koreeda as one of today’s pre-eminent humanist filmmakers. At the rate he’s mellowing, I can’t wait to find out what little gem he’ll make next.

Our Little Sister opens on October 15