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Dear Doctor

Flirts briefly with sitcom before weaving a tight narrative that tugs at the heartstrings.

With:
With: Tsurube Shofukutei, Eita,[cq] Teruyuki Kagawa, Kaoru Yachigusa, Kimiko Yo, Haruka Igawa, Ryo Iwamatsu, Yutaka Matsushige, Kanzaburo Nakamura, Takashi Sasano.

A medical charlatan with a heart of gold wins over the elderly inhabitants of a Japanese village in the touching drama “Dear Doctor.” Featuring a sterling perf from comedian Tsurube Shofukutei, the yarn flirts briefly with sitcom before weaving a tight narrative that tugs at the heartstrings with surgical precision. Opening on 50 screens in July, this charming low-budgeter has drawn respectable arthouse biz (some $3 million so far).

Story begins late one night in an unnamed Nipponese village, with police calming a distressed crowd. Amid the kerfuffle, cops catch freshly graduated medical student Keisuke (Eita) frantically searching a rice paddy for an apparently incriminating object. The narrative then cycles back two months earlier to Keisuke’s sensational arrival at the village.

Scheduled to begin work at a country clinic with an aging clientele, Keisuke crashes his red sports car en route, making his first meeting with Dr. Ino (Shofukutei) as a patient rather than as an apprentice. Unflustered, and as rotund as he is cheerful, fiftysomething Ino gives Keisuke hilarious firsthand experience of the folksy bedside manner that’s won over the villagers.

Director-writer Miwa Nishikawa, adapting her own novel, could have settled for easy laughs. But her script quickly clues auds in to the fact that Ino is unqualified. Sequences where the country medico charms with his earthy humor are counterbalanced by later scenes of police interviewing townspeople about him.

Drama finds its central focus midfilm, as Ino attends to aging widow Kazuko (Kaoru Yachigusa) in an extended housecall. Over beer and baseball, Ino convinces the reluctant Kazuko to consent the next day to medical tests for a mysterious — and painful — ailment. The bond of trust deepens, but so does the risk of exposure for the out-of-his-depth fraud.

The pic belongs to Shofukutei, who shines as the benevolent protag. Supporting cast is strong, but vet Yachigusa is particularly compelling as the widow who entrusts her well-being to Ino.

Though the pic is performance-driven, helmer Nishikawa employs economical visuals to advance her drama. Maintaining dramatic tension with informative as well as picturesque long shots, or just focusing on evocative objects, Nishikawa’s direction rivets the attention. HD lensing is a quality advance on the usual Nipponese indie standard.

Blues- and jazz-laden score by Japanese group More Rhythm helps keep the tone light. Other technical credits are just what the doctor ordered.

Popular on Variety

Dear Doctor

Japan

Production: An Asmik Ace Entertainment, Engine Film release of a Bandai Visual Co., Denner Systems, Dentsu, Eisei Gekijo Co., Engine Film, TV Man Union, Yahoo Japan production. (International sales: Asmik Ace Entertainment, Tokyo.) Produced by Etsuhiro Kato. Directed, written by Miwa Nishikawa, based on her novel, "Kino no kamisama."

Crew: Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Katsumi Yanagijima; editor, Ryuji Miyajima; music, More Rhythm; production designer, Keiko Mistumatsu; costume designer, Kazuko Kurosawa; sound (Dolby), Mitsugu Shiratori, Yamato Kato. Reviewed at Cinequanon, Tokyo, Aug. 12, 2009. (In Montreal World Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 128 MIN.

With: With: Tsurube Shofukutei, Eita,[cq] Teruyuki Kagawa, Kaoru Yachigusa, Kimiko Yo, Haruka Igawa, Ryo Iwamatsu, Yutaka Matsushige, Kanzaburo Nakamura, Takashi Sasano.

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