Thursday, August 27, 2009

Film Review: Hana and Alice

I mostly post on theological topics, but I do have other interests - really!. One is things Japanese. I am interested in Japanese culture, language, and film.

Recently I viewed a 2004 movie called Hana and Alice by director and writer Shunji Iwai. On the surface this film seems quirky: Hana, a teenage girl, schemes to trick a boy she secretly likes into thinking he has amnesia. While following him around Hana observes him colliding with a door and stumbling to the ground unconscious. When he awakens there is a girl he doesn't know - Hana - crouched over him in concern. She immediately takes advantage of the situation, insisting that they are in a relationship together, and that he has forgotten how he professed his love for her. As the tale unfolds she brings her best friend, Alice, into the plot as the boy's ex-girlfriend, whom he also has supposedly forgotten all about. As the facade progresses, though, the boy begins to fall for Alice, which provides a challenge to the girls' friendship, not to mention the confused boy. While initially off-beat, the story grows beyond its simple hook to tell of the personal challenges of two teenage girls grappling with their need to be loved, and one teenage boy who must decide if he will engage his own life and relationships or not.

The Story

The director begins by establishing the tight friendship between Hana and Alice, and at the same time Hana's infatuation with an exceedingly dull and bookish young boy who just happens to be named Miyomoto Musashi. The first third of the film focuses on Hana and her efforts to convince Miyomoto that he has forgotten all about his professed love for her - which he never professed, of course. I've seen picnic tables with more personality than this Miyomoto boy, but throughout the movie it becomes clear that this dullness is both intentional and integral to the character.

Once I was convinced that this film was solely an exhibit of quirkiness, the story shifts. The director, Iwai-san, chose to focus on each girl seperately, bringing their two stories together in the end. He spends time with each girl's story, rather than the quick back and forth sequencing between the two that happens in American cinema. Eventually it became clear that this film is not so much about a shy girl's scheming as it was a character study of three people: Hana, who tries to gain love through control and manipulation; Alice, who seems like someone who has everything going for her, but in truth has no one in her life who shows her love; and Miyomoto, who does not participate personally in his relationships, but sits passively by as other people lead him by the nose.

I enjoyed Hana's character development, which really doesn't come to a head until the end of the film. Throughout the film she continues to dig herself deeper and deeper, spinning more and more webs to convince Miyomoto that they have a real relationship. Of course in the end he figures out the lie and Hana is faced with the very thing she hoped to avoid by manipulating poor Miyomoto in the first place: the possibility of rejection.

Alice's story didn't come into play until later in the movie, but it is equally as strong as Hana's if not more. Alice is a pretty girl who "gets discovered" by a talent agency while walking on the street. As she tries out at auditions, though, she clearly lacks confidence in herself. As her story unfolds the viewer finds that her parents keep themselves emotionally at distance from Alice. Though her actions on screen seem to scream, "I love you, so please love me!" her parents each are too preoccupied with themselves to do anything more than go through the motions with her. When Alice joins in Hana's scheme as Miyomoto's supposed ex-girlfriend, she easily falls into the the role, making up things for him to "remember," weaving a very convincing tale that catches up both of them in feelings for each other.

Miyomoto's character development, like Hana's, comes to fruition at the end of the film, when he confronts Hana about her deception (having inadvertantly confirmed his doubts from a mistake in one of Alice's "memories"). Finally taking control over his life and feelings he must decide what to do about Hana and Alice. Having made his decision for or against each of the girls at the end of the film, what follows his decisions is left open, because the choice belongs to Miyomoto, as it should have from the beginning.

Further Comments

The director, Shunji Iwai, does a wonderful job creating his own story world and drawing the viewer into it. Not only does he direct and write the story, but he is the producer and the author of the music, too. It was originally shot as a series of short films, but was later changed into a full-length film. The acting is well done, too, with YĆ» Aoi (Alice) winning the Japanese Professional Movie Award for best actress. It is set in modern-day Japan. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles, which helps certain uniquely Japanese mannerisms and vocal expressions shine forth. At one point Hana begs Alice's pardon, using a characteristicly Japanese form of apology involving a deep bow, folded hands with arms extended before the lowered head, and the shortened plea of "Gomen!" In another scene two models mock Alice by pulling down on their lower eyelid and sticking out their tongues. This is the sort of stuff I enjoy seeing as one interested in things Japanese. The movie is a pleasant example of modern Japan as experienced by teenagers. I enjoyed the dynamic of entering high school, Japanese diet, and much of the nuances that belong to Japanese society as they showed forth in Iwai-san's film. It's a nice change from samurai flicks and Japanese classics I usually watch.

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