A rich coming-of-age pic that sure-handedly reflects the complexity of the novel on which it’s based, “Dead Run” is the satisfying eighth film from thesp-turned helmer Sabu (Hiroyuki Tanaka), and reps the first time he’s strayed from an original script. Stately pacing and existential feel render pic a commercial challenge, but these very same traits will create strong word of mouth that will interest fests and high-end distribs.
In the western Japanese town of Hama, young Shuji (pop musician Yuya Tegoshi) is content to live in the shadow of his over-achieving older brother, Shuichi. At a nearby church the pair discovers what they believe to be the criminal past of Father Yuichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), who narrates proceedings. Meanwhile, Shuji becomes friends with defiant loner classmate Eri (Hanae Kan), orphaned after the suicide of her parents.
Against the backdrop of a doomed resort development in the town, Shuichi’s behavior becomes increasingly violent and he turns to arson. When their parents disappear and Shuichi is sent to prison, Father Yuichi attempts to keep the siblings in touch with each other. Meanwhile, Eri’s family moves to Tokyo.
Following a failed suicide attempt, Shuji embarks on a pilgrimage to find Eri. Along the way he hooks up with moll Akane (Miki Nakatani). This results in a nightmarish encounter with gangster Nitta (Ren Ohsugi, from Takeshi Kitano’s “Fireworks”).
Helmer, whose first film as director was 1996’s “Dangan Runner,” exhibits an exhilaratingly focused command of provocative material. Like a long, winding river, Shuji’s story unfolds at leisure and with satisfying incident and character detail. Adolescence, his film instructs, is an emotional dead run often discounted or forgotten altogether during the pragmatic day-to-day living of adulthood. Tegoshi is vaguely surly yet ultimately sympathetic as Shuji, while Kan continues the intensity shown in previous efforts “Pistol Opera” and “Nobody Knows.”
Tech credits are striking, with d.p. Masao Nakabori’s cool color palette permeating the action. Flavorful score is by S.E.N.S., antonym for Sound, Earth, Nature, Spirit, who also wrote music for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “City of Sadness.”