“Plum Rain” maintains a delicate comic touch in its saga of a French playwright arriving in Tokyo to collaborate on a Japanese production of his work. Self-absorbed, impatient and terminally French, the writer attempts to navigate the tricky shoals of Japanese manners with his work intact, accompanied by his grandmother, the comrade of his youth, who has suffered an attack affecting her speech and perhaps her mind. Slight but nuanced, charming debut bodes well for Gallic helmer Frederic Fisbach.
Fisbach and co-scripter Anne-Louise Trividic (a frequent Patrice Chereau collaborator) have carefully distanced pic from its dangerously autobiographical roots. Helmer, a rather well-known young theater and opera director who indeed journeyed to Tokyo to mount several productions, avoids showing the actual staging of the play.
Instead, the “Lost in Translation”-type anxieties mushroom in literary discussions and dramatic read-throughs, generating nicely understated comic scenes of mutual incomprehension as Japanese thesps speak English in an attempt to be “universally” understood. Playwright Francois (Gilbert Melki) cannot even fathom who the actors are supposed to be portraying, since all the characters’ names have been changed to initials (the French initialize everything, he is helpfully informed by his translator) and several of his writings have been merged into one.
Meanwhile, Francois, with typical French belief in the primacy of logic and language, fails to truly communicate with his grandmother Tina (the ever-luminous Adriana Asti), despite her glances and imperious, if garbled, utterances. But, as her erratic health forces him to spend his days as well as evenings escorting her through Tokyo, exploring fish markets and attending Kabuki theater, he slowly begins to connect with her through other means, this former world traveler’s openness and visible delight filtering through to her more guarded grandson.
Through its unforced, gentle humor and the unique winsomeness Asti brings to her role, pic neatly sidesteps the schmaltz and cliches that usually accompany a cross-cultural (and cross-generational) learning experience. The seasonal rains (“Where are the plums?” Francois mumbles irritably) tend to downplay the picture-postcard exoticism of Japan, while the ironic appreciation of the Japanese theater director (Toshi Fujiwara) retranslates the volatile Frenchman into more universal terms.
Tech credits are consistently muted.