Japanese helmer Kazuyoshi Kumakiri ventures into “Lolita” territory with “My Man,” an adaptation of Kazuki Sakuraba’s controversial bestseller about the quasi-incestuous relationship between an orphaned young girl and the distant relative who adopts her. Framed by the snowbound shores of Hokkaido — “the end of the world!” per the heroine’s smilingly cryptic exclamation — the characters seem inseparable from the formidable landscape, their natures and their bond superseding mere psychology. Distanced yet emotionally charged, the film eschews identification in favor of fascination. Winner of the top film prize at the Moscow Film Festival, this obsession-tinged mood piece could flourish on the fest/arthouse circuit.
In a scene made familiar by the recent Fukushima disaster, 10-year-old Hana (Mochika Yamada) is first encountered wandering dazedly through the dark, disorienting maze of an emergency shelter, having lost her family in an earthquake/tsunami. Jungo (Tadanobu Asano), a 26-year-old relative whose relationship with Hana’s mother may have been closer than acknowledged, impulsively claims and adopts her on the spot, and her traumatic shock and wariness soon turn into fierce possessiveness.
Hana next appears as an exuberant young teen (now brilliantly played by rapidly rising star Fumi Nikaido). She eagerly awaits Jungo’s return from his coast-guard duties, skipping school to meet him when she sights his ship and accepting his frequent absences with almost wifely resignation. When she’s conversing with Jungo’s girlfriend, Komachi (Aoba Kawai), Hana’s surface cheeriness fails to disguise the steely resolve with which she asserts the primacy of her own blood relationship with Jungo, and the frightening intensity behind it as she asks if Komachi would die for Jungo as she would. Komachi, clearly disturbed by the conversation, soon departs for Tokyo.
When helmer Kumakiri next rejoins Jungo and Hana, their relationship has progressed to new levels of intimacy. A sensuous sex scene mystically covers the intertwined lovers in a gentle rain of blood, though it’s never quite clear whether it’s meant to symbolize their kinship or the soon-to-be-murderous fallout of their passion — for both will kill to preserve their fragile, makeshift family.
In his reserved perf as Jungo, iconic arthouse superstar Asano (more familiar to American audiences for his recurring role as Hogun in the “Thor” franchise) displays little outward emotion, and the character’s frequent seafaring absences are a measure of that distance. Yet he vibrates with enough repressed vulnerability and angst to make a friend’s curiously offhand revelation — that Jungo strangled his mother in a violent fit — seem entirely credible.
If Jungo seems to represent the ocean’s mystery and unreadability, Nikaido’s Hana incarnates its beauty, strength and cruelty. Only later in the film does Kumakiri explain earlier abstract imagery that shows a teenage Hana emerging fully dressed and sopping wet from the sea, crawling up on the ice with an enigmatic smile on her face; the revelation of how she got into the water arrives in an extraordinary ice-floe sequence reminiscent of Lillian Gish’s famous, peril-fraught river descent in “Way Down East.” But Hana, far from being a helpless victim, here incarnates a vengeful goddess, especially when a concerned village elder (Tatsuya Fuji) discovers the true nature of Hana’s “family” and proposes to separate them.
The lovers’ subsequent move to Tokyo radically alters their dynamic. Divorced from the sea, Jungo drifts into aimless alcoholism, while Hana morphs into a self-assured upscale sophisticate, her relentless will diverted into more socially acceptable (but no less chilling) channels.
Kumakiri’s observational approach refuses to judge Hana’s evolution, choosing rather to frame it within the wintry, quasi-mythical seascapes of the north, given full scope and implacability by Ryuto Kondo’s crystalline lensing. If the tragicomedy of Kubrick’s Humbert Humbert is to watch his glorious nymphet descend into plebian ordinariness, Kumakiri’s Jungo winds up wryly appreciating his young siren’s assumption of sexual self-empowerment.