Perfectly calibrated moments of quiet, contemplative beauty make one almost willing to overlook the lectures on tolerance and the leaden plotting in “The Harimaya Bridge,” the first feature from writer-director Aaron Woolfolk. Most effective when drawing on the auteur’s experience as a black American living in rural Japan, the film is a promising misfire from a director who can effortlessly sculpt a mood but has not yet learned how to tell a cohesive story. American-Nipponese co-production, which played in Japan last summer, began a limited Los Angeles run March 26.
U.S.-Japan co-production showcases Japan’s verdant, underpopulated Kochi Prefecture, gorgeously photographed to such a degree that one almost begins to suspect influence from a regional tourism bureau. Pic maintains a pace appropriate to these environs — unhurried, with sparse dialogue (subtitled for both English and Japanese-speakers) — and at times resembles an American take on a Japanese art film. If only this sense of directorial discretion were applied to a more interesting story.
Upon the accidental death of his estranged son, who was living as an artist and English teacher in rural Kochi, African-American retiree Daniel (Ben Guillory) decides to venture across the Pacific to recover his son’s paintings. Nursing a decades-long hatred for the people of Japan — an unexpected prejudice the film explains by mentioning his father died in a WWII POW camp — and subscribing to the popular notion that non-English speakers will begin to understand the language if you yell it at them loudly enough, Daniel makes for a truly ugly American even before he starts forcibly confiscating paintings that his son gave as gifts to others.
In Japan, Daniel is assisted by his son’s former employer, Yuiko (Misa Shimizu), who endures Daniel’s spite with good cheer, and eventually helps steer him toward his son’s fiancee (Saki Takaoka), who was brushed aside by her own parents for coupling with a foreigner. Discussions of race and national forgiveness arrive in the most awkward of ways as Daniel begins to loosen up, and the film wrings its few plot twists for all they’re worth, dancing around key narrative elements for no reason other than to reveal them later in its own sweet time.
From an acting perspective, Daniel emerges as a nearly unplayable character, jumping from silent grief to silent hostility to silent acceptance with little to color the brief interludes in between, and Guillory isn’t quite up to the challenge. Japanese thesps Misa and Saki fare better, and J-pop star Misono injects some needed energy as a hyperactive young assistant.
Masao Nakaburi’s photography is wonderful, and aside from a mawkish score, other technical contributions are well-managed.