Japanese director Shunji Iwai rudely tears up the phony promise of marriage and bourgeois life in “A Bride for Rip Van Winkle,” a cruel yet riveting tale of a young wife’s inexorable fall from grace once she succumbs to the Mephistophelean services of a shady Mr. Fix It. Artfully subverting the spirit of such soulful, diaphanous romances as “Love Letter” and “Hana and Alice” from earlier in his own career, Iwai exposes the desperation and deceit involved in the search for love. Opening in Taiwan and Hong Kong ahead of its domestic release, the film should appeal to Iwai’s enormous female fan base in Asia, though it would be hard to reproduce the roaring success of his earlier hits.
Adapted from Iwai’s own novel of the same name, the film is shot in 6K digital and comprises a three-hour “Director’s Cut” and a two-hour theatrical version. Only the longer version will screen domestically, while both prints are available selectively for overseas release. While the story’s relation to “Rip Van Winkle” possibly hinges on a bed scene in the denouement, the slumber motif remains open to more layered readings.
Like Irving Washington’s protagonist, who wakes up after a 20-year time slip to find himself a stranger in a hometown changed beyond recognition, the two female protagonists are also lonely misfits, struggling to survive without any financial or social safety net in an intimidating megalopolis. Alternatively, Van Winkle is also the alter ego of central figure Nanami (Haru Kuroki), who’s been sleepwalking through life as a straight-laced teacher and docile housewife, neither knowing what she wants nor daring to fight for anything. Ejected violently from her soulless existence, she wakes up to a brave new world where she gains friendship and confidence.
The film begins tellingly with Nanami standing alone in a thronging crowd in Shibuya like a little girl lost. She’s waiting for her blind date Tetsuo (Go Jibiki, “United Red Army,” Iwai’s “April Story”), who calls the shots via text messages. Though they only met online and have little in common except their shared profession as teachers, they soon decide to tie the knot. Nanami’s timid personality, combined with a faint voice, make her a natural target for students’ pranks and bullying by the faculty. Her addiction to online social network “Planet” suggests a need to let off steam through another identity.
As the engaged couple makes wedding preparations, their power balance looks ever more lopsided: While Nanami’s parents strain to put up a cordial front to hide their divorce from the posh in-laws, Tetsuo is unimpressed with her lack of a single relative or friend to invite to the banquet. Through her chat group, she is introduced to Amuro (Go Ayano), a self-proclaimed jack of all trades who offers to round up some actors to pose as her kin at the reception. Yet her union is steeped in deception, and Nanami soon begins to suspect Tetsuo of fooling around. She confides in Amuro, who briskly offers private eye services for a hefty sum.
From then on, her fate takes a steep downward turn as she finds herself gulled, wronged, castigated and humiliated. The serpentine plot that unfolds becomes as surreal as a David Lynch film, while pacing is coolly assured yet relentlessly suspenseful. Though Nanami’s tailspin is so sudden and dire it strains credulity, her decisions, no matter how foolhardy, can be attributed to her submissive and impressionable nature, as well as social isolation, all of which the script has carefully laid out from the outset.
Curiously, whatever calamity befalls Nanami, Amuro is always just around the corner to offer some consolation or a helping hand (for a fee, of course). Just as she hits rock bottom, he finds her a job as a live-in maid in an empty mansion, where her main duty is to take care of the owner’s rare and deadly poisionous “pets.” There, she befriends Mashiro (Cocco), fellow maid and actress-on-call. They drift into a liaison that’s sisterly as well as covertly erotic, spending their days trying on a titillating range of maid uniforms and fluffy bridal dresses.
These heavily-wrought scenes, full of soft focus and giddy rotating shots, conjure a mood that’s both cloying and macabre, transporting the story into realms of fairy tale and Victorian Gothic. Like the heroine of “Jane Eyre” or “Beauty and the Beast,” Nanami is also an ingenue sent to a creepy mansion to serve a dark, brooding master. But who is the house’s mysterious owner? And why is Mashiro’s “Planet” handle Rip Van Winkle? The revelation bears out the cleverness of the script.
Incidentally, Kuroki’s role is a composite of previous performances in other films, though this is arguably the most complex of the lot. While her voice is aggravatingly whiny, Kuroki makes her neurosis extremely tactile as she trembles like a willow at the slightest harsh word. As a counter figure to Nanami, Cocco draws from her maverick background as a folk-rocker-writer-dancer to imbue Mashiro’s high-strung temperament with a fiery will.
However, the most intriguing character may be Amuro, whose motives remain impenetrable till the end. Hirono’s ordinary looks make his designs, when revealed, all the more ambiguous. Like the salesman who can talk a bird down from a tree, the thesp slyly keeps one wondering if he’s been gaslighting Nanami all along.
As befits a style doyen like Iwai, craft contributions are exquisite but on-the-nose. Under the lensing of Chigi Kanbe, the camera seems to float around in mid-air but he overdoes the slow motion and rotating shots, pushing the protagonists’ trauma to a shrill melodramatic level in certain scenes. Likewise, Mako Kuwabara’s score repeats J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 and Cantata, BWV 147 ad nauseum.