A freeloading nurse becomes catnip for lonely old men in “0.5 mm,” a delightful sophomore feature from indie helmer Momoko Ando (“Kakera: A Piece of Her Life”) that exposes Japanese apathy toward its aging population with cool precision, while also capturing the experience of growing old with endearing eccentricity. With a whopping 196-minute running time, it’s no small feat that the pic stays absorbing, propelled by a show-stopping leading performance by the helmer’s sister Sakura Ando (“Love Exposure,” “100 Yen Love”). Still, the narrative would have remained intact even if it had shed the 30-minute epilogue, a measure that might open doors beyond indie festivals.
Adapted from the helmer’s novel of the same title, “0.5 mm” mirrors the book’s chapter-like form and is unusually lopsided in structure by most film standards. Starting with three light episodes before delving into one that takes up more than an hour, the film subtly shifts into a serious historical-political tenor, revealing the insidious damage that wartime errors and trauma have caused Japan’s collective psyche. However, even as the final episode revisits characters we met earlier, it actually takes the film in a new and distractingly open-ended direction, away from its theme of the aged — thus dissipating the rousing momentum which the narrative has so assiduously built up to this point.
Sawa Yamagishi (Sakura Ando) is a nurse outsourced to care for geriatric patients in private homes in Kochi, a prefecture in the outlying Shikoku Islands. At first, the yarn threatens to become another spacey Nipponese indie film scattered with quirky contrivances, starting with Sawa looking after bed-bound patient Kataoka (Junkichi Orimoto) and scooping up his urine with a glass bearing a smiley face; it gets weirder when Kataoka’s daughter Yukiko (Midori Kiuchi) offers Sawa a large sum to sleep with him for one night. Despite Yukiko’s reassurances that her father is on his last legs, the toothless lecher still has his mojo, apparently.
The transaction ends badly, in a gothic way, and Sawa finds herself jobless and penniless. Things take an amusing turn when she tags along with elderly retiree Yasuo (Tatsuo Inoue) to a karaoke lounge; even with suitcase and IV drip in tow, Yasuo is a perfect gentleman, and his farewell gesture to Sawa touchingly demonstrates what a little companionship means to lonely seniors. So the wily hustler embarks on a freewheeling road trip, stalking elderly men who have committed minor indiscretions, like puncturing bicycle tires for fun or shoplifting soft-porn books.
Unexpectedly, she becomes like an angel to them as she takes charge of their lives, warding off criminals far more rapacious than herself and helping the men regain their joie de vivre. Diverting scenes of the long-neglected men perking up at the meals she expertly prepares reveal the soul-nourishing care she provides. For their part, her charges respond with off-kilter body language that draws attention to their deteriorating bodily functions, in stark contrast with their still-frisky carnal desires. It’s a sometimes disturbing but candidly humane view of men who are not willing to go gentle into that good night.
Sakura Ando is wickedly deadpan as the carer who remains unflustered by her patients’ most unseemly behavior, and she’s irresistible when she coerces or coaxes them out of antisocial behavior in a polite, impersonal voice, seeming to see through all their pretenses. The actress’s consummate control is made apparent when she releases all her clenched emotions while silently listening to a cassette recording, in a pivotal scene that expresses the film’s underlying theme of social activism through individual effort.
The film is also a rare showpiece for some of Japan’s most distinguished veteran actors and entertainment personalities. Comedian Toshio Sakata brings a mischievous spark to his role as a cranky auto mechanic and boasts great chemistry with actress Ando, while evoking genuine pathos in a scene when he reverts to childlike helplessness under pressure. Masahiko Tsugawa delivers a tour de force performance as Makabe, a professor slowly crushed by the fact that his wife (Mitsuko Kusabue) has dementia — a heartrending struggle to overcome his distaste for the one he once adored.
Tech credits are competent, selectively using Kochi’s offshore geography and semi-rural community to provide a sluggish, isolated backdrop for the elderly characters’ comfortable but lonely existence. While the interiors may look mundane, production designer Koichi Takeuchi has in fact meticulously devised sets that reflect the characters’ social classes, as well as their habits and mental states. D.p. Takahiro Haibara’s long takes and precise framing capture subtle movements in stasis; his lensing of Makabe’s roomy mansion is particularly artful, revealing hidden spaces through unusual angles just as one slowly discovers complex layers beneath the scholar’s patrician image.