The decidedly odd problems of a suburban family coupled with obscure symbolism intrigues, amuses and bamboozles in “Faces of a Fig Tree,” the directorial feature bow for Japanese thesp-turned-helmer Kaori Momoi. Momoi, who is known to Western auds as the pipe-smoking madam in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” also plays the mother of this dysfunctional clan. While this arty effort is unlikely to tantalize the auds who flocked to Rob Marshall’s faux Nipponese pic, Kaori’s film is assured play on fest circuit with Asian events being the most likely destination.
Highly splintered story centers on the bizarre and chaotic Tokyo home of the Kadowaki family. Oto Kadowaki (Saburo Ishikura) is a construction worker who, in an attempt to protect his boss from legal action, finds himself as the lone labourer on the night shift in a decaying building (actually some pipes surrounded by scaffolding and tarpaulin).
His wife Maasa (Momoi) is highly suspicious that hubby is having an affair, and feels threatened by his prolonged absence when he takes an apartment closer to work.
As if justifying his wife’s suspicions, adjacent to Kadowaki’s temporary abode resides a bewitching, near-naked sprite whose sexuality both fascinates and terrifies him.
When Kadowaki does return home, he promptly drops dead. Seemingly unmoved by her husband’s death, Maasa moves in with journalist daughter Yume (Hanako Yamada), who lives downtown.
After Maasa lands a job at a restaurant, the authoritarian owner, who prohibits private conversations in his establishment, promptly asks the widow to marry him.
The pair then set up home in the same traditional Japanese house Maasa shared with her late husband, a move that seems to trigger a series of delusions in Maasa’s mind.
While Oto Jr. (Hiroyuki) is a virtual non-entity, subplots involving Yume take up considerably more time. These strands include the ostensibly irrelevant revelation that she is adopted and that, much later on, is pregnant.
Most of this is seemingly observed by a fruitless fig tree in the family garden, which, with its vibrating leaves, is like a character in its own right.
Narrative bounces from pillar to post with multiple whimsical digressions, including an animation insert of swearing ants. Some of these are funnier than others, while some are just surreal.
Momoi’s helming is similarly unconventional. While speaking directly to camera is not unusual in Japanese cinema, Momoi employs it repeatedly. Much more distinctively, Momoi deliberately places the camera right on top of her actors, barely stopping short of distorting the image.
While many thesps turned helmers often duplicate the theatrical stage on film, Momoi is determined to flaunt her visual style, whether it services the story or not. In addition to extreme closeups of her characters, helmer also manipulates point-of-view shots with Godardian glee, plays with shooting speeds and framing, and uses multiple unorthodox camera angles.
Perfs, particularly Ishikura’s amusing turn, are generally good. However, helmer Momoi, despite her undeniable thesping talents, overindulges herself at the expense of her co-stars. Tech credits are impressive.