As the first Japanese helmer invited to develop his script at the Sundance Institute (for “The Enchantment”), Shunichi Nagasaki has a better-than-average grasp of where West and East meet, cinematically. His latest — called “Romance” at home — uses three unlike characters to say some harsh yet funny things about today’s Japan, while referring to European literature and art along the way. Pic is just right for highbrow festgoers, but “Some Kinda Love” will be some kinda strange for regular arthouse types.
Deliberately low-key pic centers on two reunited college pals who make uneasy allies. Shibata (Koji Tamaki) is a nihilistic, married real-estate developer looking for the next big score, while Anzai (LaSalle Ishii) is an honor-bound, long-single bookworm and part-time novelist who just happens to work in the planning department at city hall. Their Mutt-and-Jeff friendship represents a conflict of interests on several levels, but each man has qualities the other admires.
Enter Kikiro (Kaori Mizushima), a free-spirited, possibly disturbed young woman who brings out their inner natures — including Shibata’s unbridled lust. As the mismatched buddies confront the limits of their professional and personal ethics, references to Dostoevsky’s “Notes From the Underground” and Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” enter the helmer’s script, with the French nod made explicit when Anzai draws a mustache on Kikiro’s Jean Moreau-like face.
The film’s main strength comes from the players, who are all cast against type. Mizushima, here so free and flighty, usually plays period heroines; the charismatic Tamaki is actually a big Tokyo pop star and, in fact, composed the pic’s musical score; and the sober-as-a-judge Ishii is better known as a standup comedian.
Of course, none of this will mean much to offshore auds, even if it does inform the dynamic tension between the leading threesome. Other quizzical characters float through the tale (perhaps the most intriguing is an ancient landowner who refuses, on principle, to sell to the speculating Shibata), but few stick around long. The smoothly shot pic, though keenly observed (especially about Japan’s rigid social roles), never quite rises to the profound level it hints at. As usual, the woman is a fathomless cipher — all we know is that she’s for UFOs and against monogamy. For all its good qualities, “Some Kinda Love” is too willfully obscure to reach the “Il Postino” crowd.