Leaving aside the yakuza tales of his first features, “Helpless” and “Two Punks,” young Japanese director Shinji Aoyama brings the same coolly meditative approach to the metaphysical cop drama “An Obsession.” While it’s too unhurried and emotionally stark for wide play, fest programmers and fans of such other purveyors of Japanese alienation as Sogo Ishii should go for this atmospheric account of a desperate man’s quest to confront a killer and restore his own depleted self-esteem.
Ryo Ishibashi, who played the mob boss in “Two Punks,” brings a suitably stoic demeanor to his role here as Saga, a dedicated assistant police inspector who places work before family. While he is guarding the leader of a controversial religious cult, the man is shot and killed, and Saga takes a bullet during his pursuit of the hit man (Yu-rei Yanagi). Semi-conscious, he listens as another man approaches and steals his gun. Later at the hospital, his near-hysterical wife, Rie (Eiko Nagashima), decides it’s divorce time.
Weighed down by the experience and reprimanded over the missing gun, Saga resigns. But he is sucked back into the fray when his gun is identified as the weapon in a murder. Through hypnosis and a return to the scene of his shooting, Saga traces a link to Shimano (Kazuma Suzuki), a terminal leukemia patient on a diet of stolen morphine. The cop tracks down Shimano’s former lover (Kyoko Tohyama), whose death wish reunites her with him. As Saga gets closer to the doomed duo, he rediscovers his will to live and to bridge the gap with Rie.
Opting less for suspense than for the unwavering focus indicated by the title, writer-director Aoyama, who also scored and edited the film, sustains the intense mood from the smoothly staged opening violence through Saga’s purgatorial odyssey to the solemn final act of death and redemption. While it could have been less long-winded, the disquieting drama maintains its grip with help from d.p. Isao Ishii’s cold visuals and deliberate camera and with fine use of sound and varied music.