Nipponese helmer-scribe Miwa Nishikawa continues to explore themes of deceit with her fourth film, "Dreams for Sale," a provocative portrait of a husband and wife who scam women desperate for love.

Nipponese helmer-scribe Miwa Nishikawa continues to explore themes of deceit with her fourth film, “Dreams for Sale,” a provocative portrait of a husband and wife who scam women desperate for love. Lacking the tightly wound suspense of her her 2006 picture “Sway” or the droll moral ambivalence of 2009’s “Dear Doctor,” this circuitous yarn is precariously held together by coolly disturbing character studies and a nuanced rendition of female calculation by Takako Matsu (“Confessions”). Straining to be a dramedy yet steeped in cynicism and pathos, pic reps a bitter pill for mainstream auds but suits arthouse, ancillary and fest play.

In Miyamae, a commuter district near Tokyo, Kanya Ichizawa (Sadawo Abe) and wife Satoko (Takako Matsu) celebrate the fifth anniversary of their restaurant, only to see it burn to ashes. Satomi keeps her chin up while slaving away at a grungy ramen shop, while Kanya falls into a funk. Kanya lucks out when a one-night stand with regular customer Reiko (Sawa Suzuki) results in a windfall; soon the couple is fleecing women susceptible to Kanya’s puppy-dog charm. Their first victim is prim Satsuki (Lena Tanaka), cracking under family pressure to marry.

Up to this point, the drama is entirely absorbing as it focuses intently on its protags’ misfortunes. Nevertheless, with each target, from painfully diffident Olympic weightlifter Hitomi (Yuka Ebara) to cash-strapped prostitute Kana (Tamae Ando) to gentle divorcee Takiko (Tae Kimura), Kanya and Satoko’s unscrupulous behavior becomes more alarming and grueling to watch.

One senses Nishikawa’s scorn for the scammers, but not always her sympathy for the scammed. The anecdotal structure doesn’t quicken the film’s momentum, and the respectable supporting thesps, plus star cameos, make interesting but not lasting impressions. Nevertheless, the helmer’s clinical anatomy of a crumbling marriage is refreshing in its sexual openness.

Satoko’s characterization is a masterful mockery of Japanese female stoicism taken to extremes; although her controlling nature seems well-intentioned initially, she gradually discloses underlying selfishness and schadenfreude. Matsu, whose career as a national sweetheart rivals that of Sayori Yoshinaga in the ’60s, goes even further than she did in “Confessions” to subvert her image of idealized femininity, flaring up like a vicious animal before just as quickly regaining her silky composure.

From the decisive opening scene in which his distraction and clumsiness cause the restaurant fire, Kanya’s unlikely and reluctant Don Juan, played unflatteringly with a surfeit of weak will and pigheadedness by Abe, may have trouble convincing Western auds and, indeed, most male viewers. But the character’s inadequacies only reinforce how vulnerable women can be whenever anyone dangles the illusion of love, as conveyed by the Japanese title, which translates as “Dream-vending Duo.”

Tech credits are pro. Keiko Mitsumatsu’s production design re-creates the culture of Tokyo’s izakaya (equivalent to bistros), evoking an atmosphere conducive to suggestive interactions between lovelorn strangers. A light, jazzy score softens the satirical venom.

Dreams for Sale

Japan

Production

An Asmik Ace Entertainment release of a Bandai Visual Co. Office Shirous, Yomiuri Telecasting, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Bungeishunju, Dentsu, Eisei Gekijo Co., Papado, Yahoo Japan, Ennet presentation of a Office Shirous production. (International sales: Asmik Ace Entertainment, Tokyo.) Produced by Shiro Sasaki. Executive producers, Hiroko Matsuda, Kosuke Oshida, Hiroyuki Fujikado, Asako Nishikawa, Kayo Yoshida. Directed, written by Miwa Nishikawa, based on her story.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Katsumi Yanagijima; editor, Ryuji Miyajima; music, More Rhythm; production designer, Keiko Mitsumatsu; costume designer, Miwako Kobayashi; sound (Dolby SR), Mitsugu Shiratori; visual effects supervisor, Kentaro Nishio; line producer, Kosuke Oshide; assistant director, Shinji Kuma. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 10, 2012. (Also in Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 136 MIN.

With

Takako Matsu, Sadawo Abe, Lena Tanaka, Sawa Suzuki, Yuka Ebara, Tae Kimura, Yusuke Iseya, Tsurube Shofukutei, Teruyuki Kagawa. By Maggie Lee

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