Three years down the track from his masterly “After Life,” set in a spiritual waystation between death and transfiguration, Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda focuses on another group of limboed souls in “Distance.” However, this look at four relatives trying to come to terms with the deaths of their loved ones (all members of a terrorist religious cult) is a far less interesting journey, with no clear point of view and thin material stretched to its limit. Devoid of the moving spirituality of “After Life” and its mature reflections on grace and guilt, “Distance” looks set to remain in a distribution limbo of its own, with only hardcore admirers of the helmer braving this unrewarding slog.
After being launched on the festival circuit with “Maborosi” in 1995, Kore-eda reached a much wider audience with “After Life” (1998), which sold to over 30 territories and is even readied for a U.S. remake helmed by Amy Heckerling. “Distance,” however, is a major setback, even taking into consideration the high expectations riding on the pic. There’s almost none of the generous, involving humanity (and warm humor) of the previous film, nor any clear take on the personalities in the slackly structured script, largely improvised by the actors.
Inspired by the real-life mass homicide committed by the Aum Sect in Japan six years ago, pic gradually intros in its first half-hour four characters related to dead members of the (fictional) Ark of Truth quasi-religious cult. There’s salaryman Minoru (Susumu Terajima), schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), plus semi-punk Atsushi (Araka) and the quieter Masaru (Yusuke Iseya).
Via a TV news bulletin, we learn that it’s the eve of the third anniversary since Ark of Truth members poisoned Tokyo’s water supply in an act of (never defined) protest, resulting in 128 dead and thousands hospitalized. The culprits were slain by fellow cult-members, but others are already starting to proselytize again and are being watched by police.
The foursome meet at a country railroad station and set off into the woods, first by car and then by foot, to a remote lake where the whole Ark of Truth cult was born. Through fragments of conversation we realize these are relatives of the dead cultists traveling to pay their respects and, after a simple ceremony of dropping flowers in the lake, they enjoy a lighthearted picnic in the woods.
Pic finally kicks into gear half an hour in when the quartet return to their car but find it gone. Also missing is a motorbike, which turns out to belong to Koichi (cult actor Tadanobu Asano, cruising on auto-pilot here), a surviving member of the original cult who’s also come to pay his respects. With no chance of reaching civilization by nightfall, Koichi leads them to a hut in the forest used by the cultists three years earlier.
During one long night, the group talk through their memories and sense of loss, trying to come to terms with what their loved ones did. Flashbacks limn their home lives and later questioning by the police, during which they discovered some surprising truths about their relatives. At the same time, the story of how Koichi still remains alive gradually emerges.
The two most involving threads are centered on young teacher Kiyoka, whose husband had originally asked for her help in the “education” of the cult members, and salaryman Minoru, who opted for a life of conventional dullness to support his cult-member wife and baby child. Though the pic never goes into the effects of the cult on their personal lives, both Natsukawa and Terajima manage to make something of their roles on a simple human level.
For the rest, however, the movie remains annoyingly out of focus. In flashbacks centered on Koichi, which show the cultists assembled by the lake prior to their terrorist strike, the viewer is left in the dark about the philosophy of the group and their personal reasons for joining it. There’s also little sense of the emotional presures facing the cultists as they prepare for almost certain death on their mission, or any sense of guilt in betraying their loved ones back home.
If anything, the film is more about personal responsibility to others — a test Koichi resolutely failed — but with so little backgrounding and detail to the characters, it’s impossible to care much about any of them. After the emotionally involving “After Life,” with its huge range of characters and small, involving vignettes, “Distance” is threadbare.
Visually, pic falls into two styles, with rough, handheld camerawork for scenes in the present and a fixed, much more composed look to the flashbacks — though the split in styles carries no real emotional force. Pacing throughout is extremely leisurely.