Perhaps inevitably, any undertaking immediately to follow Shinji Aoyama’s majestic, b&w epic meditation on the journey to healing after tragedy, “Eureka,” would have been considered underwhelming. But even bearing that premise in mind, “Desert Moon” represents a major disappointment. Unnecessarily complex, cluttered and obscure where the earlier film was fluid, linear, hypnotic and compelling, the Japanese director’s new drama takes a frustratingly circuitous, drawn-out route to arrive at a simplistic emotional showdown that becomes an exceedingly banal reaffirmation of family values. The choice of Cannes programmers to provide a competition slot seems justifiable solely for reasons of continuity given Aoyama’s breakthrough at the festival last year.
Title-sequence montage of war footage, eco-disasters, terrorist incidents, children, family photographs and an acquarium of tropical fish aptly reflects the film’s ambitious jumble of themes that never fully coalesce.
Led by the threat to the family posed by contemporary society, these themes include the replacement of personal relationships with technology and corporate concerns, the desire to rediscover freedom and the simple pleasures of the past, and the eternal conflict between father and son, this last element perhaps intended to provide political resonance pertaining to Japanese leadership. Three principal characters are mobilized to convey all this, with Aoyama’s script taking an inordinate amount of time to connect them.
American-educated Nagai (Hiroshi Mikami) has built up one of Japan’s most innovative and successful software companies, now succumbing to dot.com paralysis, shareholder pressure and dissent among his partners. Nagai’s wife Akira (Maho Toyota) has left him. Adrift and grasping for a sense of belonging, she returns to her childhood home in the country with their infant daughter (Yukiko Ikari). Third significant figure is young hustler Keechie (Shuji Kashiwabara), whose unbalanced hatred and urge to kill his father find a target in Nagai.
Keechie attempts to profit both from Akira’s loneliness and Nagai’s vulnerability as his company falls apart and he obsessively watches camcorder footage of his departed wife and child. But the stranger seemingly lacks the resolve to eliminate Nagai and all he represents, sublimating his patricidal wish through the actions of another, poorly introduced character whose role in the proceedings remains unclear. Keechie eventually follows Akira to her isolated retreat, joined soon after by a penitent Nagai for a final confrontation in which none of the participants appear to know what they want until the silly, saccharine outcome.
While by no means as masterful as his work on “Eureka,” lenser Masaki Tamra’s graceful, leisurely camerawork and elegant framing at least keep the disjointed film together on a visual level. But almost all the scenes play on and on without any accumulation of power, and the characters remain distant and impenetrable, making this a singularly unrewarding exercise likely to test even the most patient of audiences.