Eerie twins and wayward clones provide double trouble, to enigmatic, haunting effect, in “The Clone Returns Home,” a Japanese oddity that should please arthouse auds and sci-fi cultists alike. Bewitchingly intense low-budgeter has few special effects but achieves a glossy sheen, thanks to excellent lensing and well-chosen architectural backdrops. Attachment of Wim Wenders as exec producer will act as pic’s passport to fests. Deliberate pace may deter those not already discouraged by the bland title, but careful handling may reap commercial prospects, especially from Asia buffs.
Pic opens with astronaut Kohei Takanara (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) keeping a vigil at his mother’s (Eri Ishida) bedside. Mom’s impending passing triggers an extended flashback to Koehi’s childhood (he’s played in these scenes by Ryo Tsukamoto) and his assumed responsibility for the accidental drowning of his twin brother, Noboru (Sho Tsukamoto). Overwhelmed by guilt, the surviving boy promises his mother he will live extra long to make up for his brother’s death.
Years later, as a working astronaut, Kohei is trying to fix a space-station mechanism when a small explosion sends his body floating into space. Expecting compensation, Kohei’s widow, Tokie (Hiromi Nagasaku), is dismayed to discover her hubby had consented to have his body substituted with a clone that’s had his memories implanted.
Unfortunately, the clone is faulty, stuck at Kohei’s painful memory of his brother’s death. The clone is put in for observation, but escapes to the countryside to the same river where Kohei’s twin died, where he makes an unexpected discovery.
Physical manifestation of pic’s “He’s not heavy, he’s my brother” theme will be too much for some, but helmer Kanji Nakajima skillfully negotiates the film’s blurring of reality, illusion memory and actual occurrence; the script’s exploration of memory recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” Additional plot twists further enrich the slow-moving experience as the helmer guides auds through the yarn’s circular labyrinth.
Perfs are delivered in a carefully measured deadpan style. Despite deliberately displaying a limited range, Oikawa carries considerable emotional weight as the astronaut and his clone. On the sunnier side, Ishida exudes a warmth that secures the mother’s role as pic’s emotional center.
Lensing by Hideho Urata (“Kamataki”) is exquisite and uses the rain-soaked Japanese countryside to full advantage, with a gentle CGI mist that suggests time shifts. Other tech credits are precisely rendered.
Script picked up the Sundance/NHK Intl. Filmmakers prize in 2006, and pic will screen at Sundance in January. Print caught at the Tokyo fest bore the title “The Clone Returns to the Homeland.”