This run-of-the-mill meller offers few genuine laughs and zero texture.
Any resemblance between Yoji Yamada’s 81st feature, “About Her Brother,” and Kon Ichikawa’s 1960 masterpiece of the same name is purely incidental. Though Yamada calls his film an homage to the earlier drama, this run-of-the-mill meller about a sister and her boorish brother offers few genuine laughs and zero texture. Lacking the style of the helmer’s period pieces, the overtly sentimental pic won’t milk tears out of most foreign filmgoers, but Yamada’s rep will land it scattered fest berths and limited play in some European capitals. Local biz has been tailing off rapidly following a late January opening.
Presumably Yamada’s long-standing relationship with the Berlin Film Festival explains why “About Her Brother” incongruously bagged the closing-night slot. Rather precious narration by Koharu (Yu Aoi) provides the background story, leading up to the eve of her marriage when she’s living with her pharmacist mom, Ginko (Sayuri Yoshinaga of “Kabei: Our Mother”), and frosty grandma (Haruko Kato).
They haven’t been able to locate Ginko’s long-lost younger brother Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei), but then at the wedding, he unexpectedly arrives, downing large quantities of alcohol and making an embarrassing spectacle of himself. The sequence, full of hackneyed lowbrow comedy, feels endless. Tetsuro is sent back to Osaka, but sometime later, his g.f., Hitomi (Midoriko Kimura) shows up on Ginko’s doorstep, tearfully asking Ginko to cover the 1.3 million yen ($14,000) Tetsuro borrowed and then blew on a gambling habit.
Sometime later, Tetsuro appears in Tokyo, and Ginko and Koharu, now divorced, kick him out, though the bonds of sisterly affection rise to the surface once Ginko learns he’s dying of cancer in an Osaka hospice for the indigent. What started as a toneless comedy, reminiscent of bland early 1960s family laffers, turns into an earnest meller as a thick layer of pathos settles over the remaining 35 minutes.
It’s been a decade since Yamada set a film in the present day, and it appears he’s lost a sense of contempo naturalism. Dialogue is passed back and forth as if in a stage piece shot for the smallscreen, and the syrupy final quarter, which tries to recast Tetsuro’s exasperating behavior as the result of low self-esteem and a failed career, feels especially forced. Rather than offering a memorable portrait of a middle-class family, the pic merely recycles stereotypes without examination, offering yawns where there should be insight.
Subtlety is dispensed with, such as when a crack of thunder accompanies an argument between Tetsuro and Ginko. More than the other thesps, Yoshinaga tries her best to give her character some life, but her Ginko ends up as merely pleasant and very vanilla; Shofukutei starts off as everyone’s nightmare of an annoying uncle and, notwithstanding the character’s subsequent illness, never changes.
Visuals are solid if unexceptional, revealing surfaces but not anything underneath. One exception is the way Yamada takes great care in clearly demarcating the seasons, calling attention to winter snow, summer heat and spring rain, and yet not once are they used in any meaningful way. Most auds will find sympathies curdled even further by the sappy music.