Masato Sakai in “Key of Life”

Delightfully droll and fondly indulgent of its screwy protags, Nipponese helmer-scribe Kenji Uchida's "Key of Life" depicts what happens when a struggling actor and a hitman usurp each others' identities.

Delightfully droll and fondly indulgent of its screwy protags, Nipponese helmer-scribe Kenji Uchida’s “Key of Life” depicts what happens when a struggling actor and a hitman usurp each others’ identities. Not as fastidiously scripted as his “A Stranger of Mine” (2005) and “Afterschool” (2008), but still rigged with surprises, this high-caliber entertainment thankfully lacks the smug awareness of its own cleverness that alienated mainstream auds from Uchida’s previous features. Pic’s screenplay win at the Shanghai Film Fest, plus lead thesp Masato Sakai’s high profile in China, could open doors to several Sino-language territories.

Uchida’s screenplay carefully lays out the trajectories of three initially unrelated protags, arranging a chessboard of ingenious subplots to bring them into fateful collision.

Lifestyle magazine editor Kanae Mizushima (Ryoko Hirosue) announces her impending wedding at work, then asks her research team to submit marriageable candidates. Professional hitman Shinichiro Yamazaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), alias Kondo, executes a perfect job, and stops by a public bathhouse, where he slips on a bar of soap and blacks out.

Broke, lovelorn thesp Takeshi Sakurai (Masato Sakai) chances upon Kondo’s locker key and sneakily swaps it with his own to pilfer the assassin’s belongings. Kondo wakes up with amnesia and is befriended by Kanae; Takeshi, meanwhile, has inherited Kondo’s identity and unfinished business with yakuza client Kudo (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa).

Although the story is feather-light in substance and the Big Reveal too contrived in service of a twee ending, the fun lies in observing how these disparate, quirky personalities behave in their new identities, such as the rigor with which Kondo applies himself to learning Method acting, or the way Takeshi plunders Kondo’s condo for props with which to pose as a hitman. Moreover, the film’s breezy rhythm, witty dialogue and excellent thesping chemistry serve to smooth over the schematic nature of the plotting; the romance between Kanae and Kondo is also wisely handled in a light comic key.

As suggested by the pun in the Japanese title, “The Key Thief’s Method,” the pic pokes fun at actors and theories of acting. There are amusing parallels between Kondo’s and Takeshi’s respective professions, and the ultimate irony is that Kondo, with his numerous disguises and false identities, is a better thesp than Takeshi.

Sakai, whose performance doesn’t go beyond wide eyes and a wider-open mouth in the first act, gradually comes to deliver a knockout impersonation of ham acting in key scenes. Kagawa projects multiple personalities with deadpan ease, while Hirosue makes a likable oddball as the punctilious career woman unschooled in the ways of the heart.

Tech credits are pro, especially the work of art director Koichi Kanekatsu, who takes noticeable care to reflect each character’s background and personality through choices of home, fashion and even mobile ringtone. The music of Beethoven and other classical composers is cunningly deployed, first as a leitmotif, and eventually to trigger a dramatic turning point.

Key of Life

Japan

Production

A Klockworx Co. (in Japan) release of a "Key of Life" Film Partners (the Klockworx Co., TV Asahi, Asahi Broadcasting, Dentsu, Parco, Media Factory, Yahoo Japan, Cine Bazar, King Records Co., Nagoya Broadcasting Network Co., Hokkaido Television Broadcasting Co.) presentation of a Cine Bazar production. (International sales: the Klockworx, Tokyo/Los Angeles.) Executive producers, Itaru Fujimoto, Kazutoshi Wadakura. Directed, written by Kenji Uchida.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Akira Sako; editor, Shinichi Fushima; music, Yusuke Tanaka; music supervisor, Shin Aoki; art director, Koichi Kanekatsu; set decorator, Kazuyoshi Sawashita; costume designer, Michiyo Miyauchi; sound (Dolby SRD), Kenichi Fujimoto; visual effects supervisor, Nobutaka Douki; stunt coordinator, Go Ohara; line producers, Kazumi Fukase, Satoshi Akagi, Hiroshi Ohnishi; assistant director, Hideaki Murakami; casting, Tsuyosi Sugino. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 12, 2012. (Also in Shanghai Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 128 MIN.

With

Masato Sakai, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, Yoko Moriguchi. (Japanese dialogue)

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