A concise drama that intriguingly underplays situations that could have been depicted in a lurid high key.

Amour gets steadily more fou in “The Knot,” a concise drama that intriguingly underplays situations that could have been depicted in a lurid high key. Probably too small and unsensational to attract offshore theatrical distribs, helmer Yuichi Onuma’s tale of two couples and one big secret in a small Japanese town could parlay fest attention into select home-format sales.

Ayako (Muck Akazawa) and Keisuke (Jyunichi Kawamoto) seem alike in that they’re both reserved, brooding, vaguely discontented types married to cheerfully ordinary extroverts — Ayako to bubbly Akane (Sou Hirosawa), with whom he runs a dry-cleaning business, and Keisuke to local businessman Gantaro (Masaki Miura), whose obstinate, senile father (Kouichi Ueada) she’s stuck at home caring for.

Thus, it’s no surprise the duo share some spark of attraction when they first accidentally cross paths. It’s a considerable surprise, however, when after some time, Takehiko Minato’s deliberately spare script almost offhandedly reveals the two actually knew each other 14 years earlier, when Ayako was a schoolgirl and Keisuke a junior high-school teacher. That shared, scandalous past left each obsessed with the other — his admitted addiction now manifests itself in a willingness to drop everything (including his wife) to revive their relationship, while her more violently mixed feelings are partly vengeful.

Bigger than the both of them, these emotions quickly spin out of control, until their spouses suss what’s going on and some sort of spectacular combustion seems inevitable. Heightening the potential for disaster is the burden placed on Ayako by her father-in-law, whose dementia increasingly pushes him to run away, get drunk and even hit her.

Helmer Onuma (moving in a different direction from scare fare like “Kill Devil” and “Suicide Manual 2″) builds tension with a quiet, intimate focus underlined by committed perfs, Shin Hayasaka’s handsome photography, minimal use of music and the deceptively tranquil, verdant setting. Ambiguous treatment of pederasty issues provides the pic with a queasy undertone it cannily uses without exploiting; sexual content is relatively discreet.

Given the powerfully conflicted emotions of the protags, however, the too-easily achieved resolution doesn’t really convince in terms of character logic, even if Onuma pulls it off tonally.

The Knot

Japan

Production

An Amumo production. (International sales: Eleven Arts, Santa Monica.) Produced by Yasuyuki Oda. Directed by Yuichi Onuma. Screenplay, Takehiko Minato.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Shin Hayasaka; editor, Kenji Maejima; music, Taku Unami; costume designer, Masae Miyamoto; sound, Shin Suqita; assistant director, Go Kinomoto; casting, Kumiko Equichi. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (East Meets West -- competing), Feb. 3, 2011. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Muck Akazawa, Jyunichi Kawamoto, Sou Hirosawa, Masaki Miura, Kouichi Ueada, Takurou Otsuki, Yuko Genkaku, Yoshito Kobasigawa.

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