“Like Grains of Sand” is an enthralling account of youthful love, longing, homosexual desire and psychological turmoil. This seductive drama set in a Japanese high school is mesmerizingly lyrical yet surprisingly immediate and universal in its sensitive grasp of adolescent emotional pangs. Winner of one of the Rotterdam fest competition’s three equally ranked Tiger Awards, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s sophomore feature should work its spell on adventurous arthouse distribs, especially those specializing in gay-themed films.
Hashiguchi’s promising but problematically paced 1992 debut, “The Slight Fever of a 20-Year-Old,” dealt with being young and gay in the more jaded arena of early adulthood. Here he brings a considerably more confident focus to the period immediately preceding that one; the late-teen years of raging hormones and romantic obsessions.
The central obsession here is beautifully conveyed in a ravishing opening sequence in which sexually intoxicated 17-year-old Shuji (Yoshinori Okada) faints while following his classmate Hiroyuki (Kouta Kusano) onto the playing field during physical education class. The two boys are close friends, but the latter is unaware of the true nature of Shuji’s affection.
A newcomer to the school, Kasane (Ayumi Hamazaki), who has her own dark secrets, cottons on to Shuji’s hidden desires and confronts him with the knowledge, aggressively taunting him at first and then becoming more sympathetic as he opens up to her. Both students are being treated by the same psychiatrist, Kasane after being raped at her previous school and Shuji in an attempt by his father to cure his homosexuality. Their emotional problems create a melancholy affinity between them.
When Shuji is ridiculed by his classmates and Hiroyuki comes to his defense, Shuji finally confesses his love for the other boy. He begs him for a kiss, to which Hiroyuki eventually consents in a superbly sustained scene. As the trio becomes more vulnerable, Hiroyuki’s feelings for Kasane deepen. When she suddenly leaves for her hometown in the country, Shuji delivers Hiroyuki to her, and a bizarre romantic triangle takes shape.
The almost operatic dimensions and the sexually ambiguous conclusions of the closing scenes skirt dangerously close to melodrama, but the extremely personal nature of the material gives it a real charge. Confrontations such as Kasane being accused of theft by another girl, or attacking Hiroyuki for his inability to return Shuji’s love, are hypnotic in their intensity.
Without resorting to cliches, writer-director Hashiguchi has culled his characters from recognizable high-school types, such as the popular but heartless girl, the good girl and model student who wants to loosen up but doesn’t know where to begin, and the sympathetic, sensitive straight boy. Moments of unexpected humor and the fresh, natural playing of the young cast — especially the three leads — make this an uncommonly successful attempt to negotiate the psychological minefield of youth.
Visual approach is deliberate without being overly rigid, setting up a series of poised, handsomely lit compositions and then playing out the action within the frame before a largely static camera. Despite its length of just over two hours, the drama’s impressively modulated rhythms feel just right.