Asmash hit at home, where it’s still playing with 2.5 million tix already sold, “Faraway Sunset” is a glossy historical weepy with better-than-usual offshore sales potential — on paper. Syrupy production and an empty story, however, will make its glow short-lived.
This ambitious biopic sketches the twist-of-fate life and career of Hideyo Noguchi, whose childhood accident led him to study medicine; because his hand was badly burned, the world lost a poor shrimp-picker and gained a first-rate bacteriologist.
Unfortunately, the filmers found his dawn-of-the-century struggles with immunization to be insufficiently interesting, and focused instead on the low-down woes of his left-behind mom — which is a bit like turning “The Story of Louis Pasteur” into “Stella Dallas.”
Not that topliner (and Japanese fest award winner) Yoshiko Mita doesn’t make the most of this Stanwyckian opportunity: With the aid of exceptionally convincing makeup, she plays the poverty-stricken Mrs. Noguchi from 16 to 66, milking her character’s lack of fulfillment for all its Kleenex-soaking potential. The dominant tone, though, is grimly smiling determination, and Westerners may find such womanly submission all too familiar, if not downright regressive.
More problems arrive when the action switches to the American university where Hideyo (Hiroshi Mikami) heads for post-graduate work, and some disastrous English-lingo scenes: His mentor is played by a wooden amateur; his future wife is a Philadelphian named Mary (Julie Dreyfus), although her accent is obviously French, and Mikami’s English is phonetic at best.
Worst of all, when the young scientist makes his most significant breakthrough — isolating syphilis bacteria — the script hasn’t bothered to say what he was looking for (his exultant “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” may raise more jeers than cheers). A v.o. ending, explaining how Noguchi succumbed to yellow fever in Africa, feels tacked-on and unsatisfying after a long two hours.
Nonetheless, lensing is often spectacular, and most small parts are well handled, with the daily texture of long-ago Japanese village life revealed in loving detail. From the start, however, intrusive TV-style music underscores the pic’s shallow intentions. This “Sunset” may look nice on the fest circuit, but it won’t go down with wider auds.