Veteran helmer Masahiro Kobayashi’s topical but inert Cannes competition entrant observes Yuko (Fusako Urabe), an aid worker captured and then freed in Iraq, facing harassment back in Japan because her ordeal is seen as a national shame. Admirable thesping maintains interest, while Kobayashi trades in his usual painterly camera set-ups for a looser, handheld style. Unfortunately, “Bashing” only begins to throw real emotional punches in its last act, and, while pic looks poised to reap controversy domestically, non-Asian auds are likely to be baffled by the antipathy to the protag shown by a society obsessed with “saving face.”
After brief opening titles that explain the story is “loosely” based on real-life events, first scene shows Yuko six months after she has returned from Iraq to a non-descript, provincial seaside Japanese town. As she starts her morning work as a maid at a local hotel (shown in the sort of intricate detail helmer Chantel Akerman would admire), her boss calls her outside and says he has to fire her, explaining that her presence is disturbing her co-workers.
Her day goes from bad to worse when she’s jostled aggressively by youths in a convenience store parking lot and spills her just-bought lunch. At home, her father (Ryuzo Tanaka) and stepmother (Nene Otsuka) seem to be in denial about the situation, although they can hardly ignore the stream of abusive phone messages left on their answering machine.
Then, a few days later, Yuko’s father is politely asked to resign from his factory job of 30 years by his boss (Kikujiro Honda) because the company can’t cope with the abusive calls and emails regarding Yuko.
In a scene during the film’s first half hour, Yuko plaintively asks her stepmom, “Is what I did so wrong?”, and probably most non-Japanese auds will be scratching their heads and asking the same question. Little explanation is given about exactly what happened to Yuko in the Middle East, but that hardly seems to be the point.
From snatches of conversations during Yuko’s encounters with various people — including ex-b.f. Iwai (Takayuki Kato) — it becomes clear that her decision to help others abroad is viewed as a “selfish” act. Moreover, Iwai notes to Yuko: “If you had died over there, you would have been a hero,” but to have survived is seen as shameful.
Because dialogue is pared down to a minimum, Yuko’s yearning looks out across the sea are the first clues that she wishes for what would seem to be the unthinkable: to return to Iraq. In a climactic heart-to-heart with her stepmom, Yuko explains that she’s always felt like an outsider in Japan and the only time she felt loved and needed was when she was in Iraq. “I want to live again among those children’s smiles,” she cries, a poetic touch that reads slightly pretentiously in subtitles of print caught.
Although quasi-documentary realism of lenser Koichi Saitoh’s camerawork marks a significant departure from the stately but static look of Kobayashi’s previous films (“Film Noir” and “Bootleg Film,” for example), and at times recalls peripatetic feel of the Dardennes Brothers’ movies (especially “Rosetta”), thematically “Bashing” is of a piece with Kobayashi’s ongoing preoccupation with social outcasts and outsiders.
Like the disturbed stalker in his last, “Amazing Story,” Yuko is a tight-lipped loner determined to carry on her life as normal. Hence the large emphasis placed on daily routines, resulting in numerous, numbingly repetitive shots of Yuko climbing the three stories of her apartment building.
“You look like an artist,” remark her straight-laced friends, signaling clearly where Kobayashi’s sympathies lie. But the writer-helmer’s determination to hold to an oblique approach, revealing as little as possible, at times makes pic feel like an undercooked, overextended short, despite its meaty theme.
Thesping, however, is strong throughout, especially from the expressive, jolie-laid Urabe (who played a supporting role in Kobayashi’s “The Man Who Walked on Snow”), and Tanaka, whose meltdown scene, surrounded by emptied bottles, is a study in almost Charles Bukowskian excess, albeit in a polite Asian way. Even the most minor characters make an impression with delicate acting brushwork in small scenes.
The rest of tech credits are efficient without being striking. Although Hiroshi Hayashi is given a “music by” credit, his contribution amounts to just one song over the end credits. Not a single musical note is struck in the rest of the entire pic.