Understatement and a beguiling sensitivity are the hallmarks of “The Japanese Dog,” Tudor Cristian Jurgiu’s quietly impressive debut about an elderly man in the countryside whose recent loss brings him back in touch with his son, who moved to Japan. Handsomely shot to privilege nature’s prime position in rural life, this deceptively simple tale, told in beautifully self-contained scenes that dispense with unnecessary exposition, boasts a sterling performance by Victor Rebengiuc, the best-known Romanian actor of his generation, in a role of unassuming dignity. A healthy fest life awaits, with further traction via Romanian showcases.
The life of Costache Moldu (Rebengiuc) has literally been devastated by a recent flood in his village in southern Romania, killing his wife and destroying his home. He salvages what he can, collecting in a cart the detritus of a long life, which he brings to the house he’s been allocated by the town (there’s still no electricity). A few brief scenes capture his personality: independent, proud, with a veneer of firmness that gives way to generosity. He has a piece of land worth about $8,000 that the mayor (Laurentiu Lazar) suggests he sell, though as Costache says, “What can I do with all that money?”
Then his estranged son Ticu (Serban Pavlu, “Everybody in Our Family”) arrives from Japan with wife Hiroko (Kana Hashimoto) and son Koji (Toma Hashimoto). Costache hasn’t spoken with his son for ages; he doesn’t use a phone, and it’s clear he wasn’t very happy when Ticu left local girl Gabi (Ioana Abur) and moved to Asia. Now that they’re all together, Costache starts thinking of what he can do with the land, but Ticu and family don’t plan on staying.
The original script (credited to Ioan Antoci, Gabriel Gheorghe and Jurgiu) won several awards, and it’s easy to see why, imbued as it is with a refreshing decency of character that respects each role and doesn’t need to fill everyone’s mouth with blather in order to make a statement about who these people are inside. What makes “Japanese Dog” even more special is the way Jurgiu complements the screenplay with a demonstrative appreciation of the rural setting, recalling Thomas Hardy in his presentation of figures for whom natural surroundings form a vital element of their makeup.
Jurgiu also pushes away any histrionics, keeping tensions under the surface so that when emotions are felt, they infuse the viewer with a pleasurable sense of gratitude for a story that’s heartwarming without the sappiness often associated with that word. Some auds may be frustrated that they’re not given more — for example, Costache’s wife’s death is never elaborated — but this is reverie rather than melodrama, and its discretion is uplifting. Like the film itself, Rebengiuc’s aura of reserve implies rather than blabs, making his Costache an aristocratic figure notwithstanding his provincial associations.
From the masterful opening long shot of villagers rescuing objects from the marshy post-flood plain, it’s clear the director plans on foregrounding setting. Ace d.p. Andrei Butica (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “Child’s Pose”) again proves his consummate versatility with measured visuals that underline the importance of environment and the villagers’ coexistence with their landscape, even after Nature flexed her muscles; the luminous effects of daylight, dappling figures with their warmth, add to the pictorial pleasures. The Japanese dog of the title is Koji’s mechanical toy.