Known (if at all) on the fest circuit for his quirky, male-centered pics focused on unpredictable losers, Nipponese helmer Junji Sakamoto takes a left turn into quieter waters with “Face,” an almost unclassifiable blend of low-key black comedy and the subtlest changes of mood. Highlighted by a riveting performance from legit actress Naomi Fujiyama, as a pudgy woman who murders her younger sister and embarks on a weird odyssey, this intriguing pic could have a tiny theatrical career offshore with careful nursing and (preferably) 15 minutes’ trimming. Pic has already enjoyed some success on home turf.
A former child star, and a veteran of over 200 stage roles, Fujiyama plays Masako, a dumpy virgin in her late 30s who works as a seamstress upstairs in her mom’s dry cleaning business. Addicted to TV soaps, painfully withdrawn and overshadowed by her bar-hostess sister, Masako one day makes a bolt for freedom on a train, meets the handsome Ikeda (Hiroyuki Sato) but finally returns to the nest.
When her mother drops dead one day while ironing, Masako skips the funeral and, pushed over the edge by her sister’s taunting, strangles her. Taking some clothes and the funeral donations, she heads into the outside world, to Osaka, searching for the father who abandoned her years ago.
That’s just the start of a curious journey in which Masako, superbly limned by Fujiyama as a physically clumsy refugee from life’s norms, drifts through provincial Japan with a bullet-proof attitude toward whatever society can throw at her. Raped in the back of a truck by a drunk (Kankuro Nakamura), she simply gets to her feet and moves on. Working as a receptionist at a “love hotel,” she comes across the strangled corpse of her boss — and moves on.
Masako finally ends up in a small town bar where the owner, Ritsuko (Michio Ookusu), gives her a job behind the counter. Here too, though, she’s virtually raped by a regular and becomes caught up in the life of Ritsuko’s idle brother, Hiroyuki (Etsushi Toyokawa, playing against type), a former yakuza. With the police still on her trail, Masako moves on yet again.
Taking its cue from Fujiyama’s performance, which is often wickedly funny without ever directly mocking the sad main character, the film continually slides from one mood to another with the most minute of course corrections. Sakamoto and Fujiyama toy with the viewer’s emotions in such a way that you have to continually remind yourself that Masako is, when all is said and done, a murderer on the run.
Even the pic’s visual style — precise and clean, sans artiness — rarely offers a life vest for the viewer. The major difference between “Face” and Sakamoto’s earlier films is that the quirky elements are almost buried from view, forcing the audience into uncomfortable positions. When they do occasionally break through the surface — as in a sequence which cross-cuts, to the accompaniment of a honky-tonk song, scenes of Masako happily riding a bike (one of the pic’s running jokes) with a character being sliced up by yakuza — the effect is startling.
In the story’s major seg, Ookusu etches a fine performance as bar owner Ritsuko, a fount of compassion and friendliness who Masako latches onto and finally has to desert in the most appalling circumstances. Other roles are keenly filled by Sakamoto regulars. Japanese title has several meanings beyond the physical one — including a sense of personal dignity.