Stunningly shot, but emotionally contrived to the point of exasperation, “Memory & Desire” is a beautiful, empty artifact. In this story of a tragic love affair between two Tokyo-ites who honeymoon in New Zealand, Kiwi feature debutante Niki Caro aims for a pseudo-Japanese finesse that’s let down by a mannered script and mixed performances. Auds attracted by “exoticism” for its own sake may go with the tale, but this consciously arty melodrama looks to be a fleeting memory in English-speaking territories.
First half is told in flashback by Sayo (newcomer Yuri Kinugawa) after the body of her husband, Keiji (Eugene Nomura), is hauled from the sea on a windswept New Zealand beach. A plain Jane from humble origins, she had been swept off her feet by the handsome, boyish-looking Keiji, and, despite the opposition of his snooty mother (Yoko Narahashi), the two joined a tour group and got married Down Under.
But as the honeymoon progressed, Keiji found himself unable to perform his marital duties and went into a deep funk. Finally, after a rapturous consummation, first in their hotel room and then in a cave on the beach, he mysteriously disappeared into the surf.
Pic’s second half limns Sayo’s return to Tokyo, her rebellion against the polite animosity of Keiji’s family and her return to New Zealand. Setting up a shrine in the cave where Keiji carved the word “love” on the wall, she slowly goes dotty.
Even if one can get past the convention of all the Japanese characters speaking to one another in English, there’s no getting past some of the fulsome, unnatural dialogue and the fact that Kinugawa cannot act convincingly in the language. (Some of her voiceovers are also unclear.)
Nomura is fine but, after a start that convincingly limns the character, is mostly reduced in the middle of the pic to sulky exchanges that throw little light on either Keiji or the causes of his impotence. As his matriarchal mom, Narahashi is OK but essentially then.
Lenser Dion Beebe and composer Peter Scholes wrap the slim story in gorgeous visual and musical packaging. But their work finds decreasing echoes in the script and performances, and serves only to heighten the cliches from which the movie is built: from the other Japanese in the tour group (giggling teenage girls; a macho husband who suggests Keiji get a mistress) to the pristine settings in Tokyo, to the clean, tourist-board odyssey through New Zealand’s beauty spots.