Graphic artist Edgar Honetschlaeger’s storytelling skills don’t begin to match his positively inspired visual sense in “Milk,” a quirky look at four fish out of water, all of whom are swimming upstream. Focusing his considerable gift for kinetic observation and arresting composition on locations in New York and Tokyo, first-time helmer treats viewers to cinematic interludes that excite the imagination and tickle the funny bone. But apart from the cult and art crowd, this is purely fest fare.
Simon, a young English- and Japanese-speaking Austrian, meets Rika, a Japanese woman, in New York. She invites him to share her Manhattan hotel room, and he schleps along his eclectic and unwieldy collection of chairs gathered on the street. Rika’s beloved teddy bear vanishes, but room service comes to the rescue in just one of many obtuse yet faintly endearing tidbits.
New York is a temporary home for Simon, who has been living in Japan for many years. Back in Nippon, he is friendly with a forthright American woman, Helen, and devotes a lot of time to his obsession with the burial site of a famous ancient courtesan.
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Rika returns to Japan where she works as an elevator operator in a snazzy department store. Radio host Helen becomes friendly with a Japanese man who jogs compulsively rather than shame his family by admitting he’s been fired from his job. The four characters overlap in casual ways as they illustrate the disjointed subtext of modern life.
From the serendipitous sashaying of a spinning top to the progress of elevated trains and the urban beauty of pedestrians spilling out into a three-way intersection, helmer displays a careful eye for color and composition in framing real life.
Honetschlaeger isn’t afraid to introduce complete silence, and provides splendid musical jolts via recording artists the Yemoto, whose traditional Japanese stringed instruments deliver wacky renditions of Western classics from Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” to the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run.” Overlapping conversations also provide comic mileage as pic ambles along from random vignette to droll incongruity.
Press notes claim that dairy products were introduced to Japan by Westerners, hence the film’s title as a comment on the Westernization of Japan.