Nobuhiro Suwa won the Netpac award in Rotterdam in 1997 for his first feature, “2/Duo”; his sophomore outing, “M/Other,” continues to explore similar domestic themes, though this time at excessive length. Pic could travel the fest route, but it’s generally too self-absorbed, too demanding and too protracted to succeed in its aim of exploring new directions for the traditional Japanese family.
Suwa films in long, continuous takes, his camera often motionless. He encourages his actors to improvise their dialogue and to decide for themselves their positions within the frame.
Surprisingly, despite these freedoms, the film remains rigorously classical in style, with the camera setups artfully composed. But the seemingly fashionable conceit of utilizing minimal lighting works against the film: In all too many scenes, the faces of the characters simply can’t be discerned.
The story is simple enough. Tetsuro (Tomokazu Miura), a divorced man who runs a failing chain of up-market restaurants, lives with his girlfriend, Aki (Makiko Watanabe), a graphic designer, in a smart if rather sterile apartment. Theirs is an open relationship, far from traditional Japanese concepts of family life.
One morning Tetsuro receives a call informing him that his ex-wife has been injured in a car accident and he must look after their 8-year-old son, Shun (Ryudai Takahashi). This doesn’t please Aki, who rightly realizes that the presence of an energetic child in the calm atmosphere of the lovers’ apartment will be intrusive.
She’s even less appreciative when Tetsuro reverts to the traditional role of the husband and father, expecting Aki to carry out the chores involved in looking after the boy. Inevitably, the few weeks that Shun stays with the couple result in a radical rethinking of the relationship.
Many Japanese filmmakers in the ’90s have been exploring the collapse of traditional family life and the way society is changing as a result. Suwa’s cool, distanced approach doesn’t add a great deal to the theme. He keeps the audience at arm’s length, and though his actors give impressive performances, the film’s remoteness is alienating.
Apart from the excessive gloominess of the lighting in many shots, “M/Other” is technically proficient.