Koki Mitani, whose screwball comedy, “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald” (1998), was one of the strongest writing-helming debuts in Japanese cinema of the past decade, checks in with another hit in his third pic, “Suite Dreams.” A kind of Nipponese “Grand Hotel” as reimagined by the late Billy Wilder, this big-hearted ensembler set during the chaotic run-up to New Year’s Eve goes for the long comic burn over more than two hours, with a script that, like “McDonald,” has the precision of a Swiss watch. Fests with an open mind on Japanese cinema should give this audience-pleaser space — and, in a less categorized world, distribs, too.
Released locally in mid-January, pic has been Mitani’s biggest home run so far, clocking up $52 million. Unlike most Japanese hits, this one offers plenty for occidental auds as well.
With a Broadway-like overture and main-title proscenium arch, the curtain literally rises on Hotel Avanti (one of several direct Wilder nods), where accommodations manager Shindo (Koji Yakusho, from 1996’s “Shall We Dance”) smoothly preps the staff for several events that night. Prior to the actual New Year’s Eve party, there’s the Man of the Year Award for the Stag Directors’ Assn., plus a press conference by a rising politico.
Adopting a busy rather than hectic pace, and salting his characters with background as the evening wears on, Mitani gradually accustoms the viewer to the dozen or so major protags rather than throwing them all at once into the pot.
It’s soon clear, for instance, that Shindo is more than he seems: He used to be a legit director and his ex-wife, Yumi (Mieko Harada), who’s now married to the Man of the Year honoree, looks down on him as a hotel flunky.
Shindo pretends he’s being honored that night with a theater award, which leads to all sorts of complications.
Among others milling around are: Shindo’s very organized deputy (Keiko Toda); a blonde-wigged, gold-digging hooker (Ryoko Shinohara); a chamber maid who’s mistaken for a rich guest’s mistress (Takako Matsu); a bellhop-cum-wannabe singer(Shingo Katori); a well-known, suicidal entertainer (Toshiyuki Nishida); the politico (Koichi Sato); and a geeky hotel calligrapher.
With most characters in some kind of perpetual motion, Mitani maintains interest not only by criss-crossing storylines but also by going for a wide range of performance styles. Some are more locally-flavored than others — Nishida’s aging enka singer in particular — but generally Mitani keeps the lid on pure physical or pratfall comedy, instead going for character-based humor.
From the 90-minute point on, the protags’ dreams and/or desires start to coalesce, leading to a gradual buildup to the New Year countdown finale. By the end of the movie, the viewer has really gotten to know — and like — all these flawed human beings.
Tech package is smooth and brightly lit, with Yusuke Honma’s warm score supplying emotional assist at intervals. But the dialogue and the top-flight cast are the main things in “Suite Dreams” — and Mitani handles both with a legiter’s practiced skill.