A directionless thirtysomething ex-starlet meets a naive, optimistic younger guy in "Non-ko," fest darling Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's sweetest feature yet.

A directionless thirtysomething ex-starlet meets a naive, optimistic younger guy in “Non-ko,” fest darling Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s sweetest feature yet. Anchored by Maki Sakai’s fine-tuned perf, pic surprises with its femme-centric sympathies, grappling with the potent concerns of what to do when career and personal paths collapse and the biological clock is ticking. Exuding genuine warmth, though not shying away from harsh realities, “Non-ko” failed to make much of an impression locally, but fests could have a sleeper if given a decent push.

When her marriage goes bust and her career as a small-time movie babe fizzles, Nobuko, aka Non-ko (Sakai), moves back in with her parents at the age of 36. Dad (Shigeru Saiki) is the caretaker of a Shinto temple in Saitama prefecture, so she does odd jobs around the place and in the house, her diffident attitude reflected in her downward-bearing body language.

Enter Masaru (Hoshino Gen), a bright-eyed youth who wants to rent booth space for the temple’s annual festival. Though Tokio (Kanji Tsuda), the local yakuza type, refuses permission, Non-ko encourages Masaru to flout the rules; she takes pity on the persistent guy and lets him stay in her parents’ home. She even starts to smile around him, but then her ex Udagawa (Shingo Tsurumi) shows up offering stardom, and she falls into old patterns against her better judgment.

As Non-ko breaks through her apathy and disillusionment, Kumakiri brightens the mood with scenes of visual beauty and emotional release: Particularly memorable is a delightful chase after a yellow chick through a field of pink daisies, accompanied by Non-ko’s first real giggles.

Masaru’s misguided idea of selling chicks offers a nice parallel to his own persona — like the chicks themselves, he’s gentle and unformed, and what’s Non-ko really going to do with him?

Reinforcing her range, Sakai (“United Red Army” and Kumakiri’s “Green Mind, Metal Bats”) gives a natural, deeply sympathetic performance, and she’s fully aware of how to silently communicate with her body. East or West, this is a woman everyone knows, and her bad decisions are painful to watch but not entirely unexpected. Scripter Takashi Ujita is a Kumakiri regular, though none of the violent over-the-top elements that marked their previous collaborations are in evidence here.

Lensing, too, is understated, staid but never funereal, and boasting a sophisticated use of space, especially toward the pic’s end when the screen becomes crowded with festival activity. Japanese-language title roughly translates as “Non-ko, 36, household helper,” reflecting Non-ko’s fall from Tokyo actress to provincial homebody.

Non-ko

Japan

Production

A Nippon Shuppan Hanbai, Toei Video, There's Enterprise production. (International sales: There's Enterprise, Tokyo.) Produced by Tomohiro Kobayashi, Gen Sato, Keiko Kusakabe. Executive producers, Takashi Anzai, Toru Ishii, Koichi Kusakabe. Directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri. Screenplay, Takashi Ujita.

Crew

Camera (color), Ryuto Kondo; editor, Zensuke Hori; music, Akainu, PoPoyans; production designer, Koji Kozumi; costume designer, Satoe Araki; sound (DTS stereo), Noriyoshi Yoshida; line producer, Hideki Hoshino; assistant director, Satoshi Yoshida. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Spectrum), Jan. 29, 2009. (Also in Tokyo Filmex -- competing.) Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Maki Sakai, Hoshino Gen, Shingo Tsurumi, Kanji Tsuda, Hitomi Sato, Eri Nitta, Masayo Utsunomiya, Shigeru Saiki.

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