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‘Blood’ Review: A Young Widow Searches For Meaning in an Unconventional But Uninvolving Character Study

Despite its profound spiritual and romantic intentions, Bradley Rust Gray’s fiercely indie Japanese excursion is a tonal and stylistic misfire that curiously alienates the viewer.

Blood
Courtesy of Mutressa Movies

A scrapbook collection of serene, observational moments in search of a story, “Blood” runs deep, but only with obscure meaning, so opaque at times that its essence feels unreachable. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s first feature in a decade offers some modest rewards to patient viewers up for a challenge, but this good-natured study of a young widow’s new chapter in life is finally too understated to leave a memorable trace.

Premiering in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance, “Blood” is exactly the type of unstructured, casually paced indie that requires the immersive experience of the movie theater: dark, big and distraction-free. The irony, of course, is that’s a hard sell these days to spectacle-seeking ticket buyers. Beyond the festival circuit, the film could find a small, committed audience on streaming platforms. Those captivated by the filmmaker’s previous, similarly dispositioned films like “The Exploding Girl” ought to turn up, as might devotees of South Korean master Hong Sang-soo’s tranquil and conversational cinema.

But Gray is no Hong, a virtuoso of low-key tales and scenes one tentatively eavesdrops, only to be mesmerized by their quiet profundity. Even viewers with a strong taste for the experimental might struggle to connect with “Blood,” despite the film’s collection of amiable characters. (Bonus points to any viewer who can decipher the relevance of the film’s title, styled entirely in lowercase.)

At its center is Chloe (Carla Juri), a widowed photographer who travels for work to Japan, where she reconnects with her old musician friend Toshi (Takashi Ueno). If their comfortable body language around each other is any indication, there is mutual, loving care between the two. (More than once, one cozily falls asleep on the other’s shoulder.) So one does wonder early on if there’s something more in the cards for the pals. But through minimal character development and cinematographer Eric Lin’s purposely wide, distant lensing — stubbornly keeping most of the action at arm’s length — Gray does very little to cultivate our curiosity. When the possibility of romance arrives halfway through the film, you’re no longer sure if you care.

Most of “Blood” spills out of isolated interactions between Chloe and the rest of the cast. In addition to the mild-mannered Toshi and Futaba (Futaba Okazaki), his lovable daughter with Down’s Syndrome, we get appearances from Toshi’s delightful grandmother (Sachiko Ohshima), pensive translator Yatsuro (the great Issey Ogata of “Yi Yi” and “Silence”) and choreographer Chieko (Chieko Ito).

Navigating her days mostly amid this genial group, Chloe takes a boat ride, enjoys Japanese cuisine, immerses herself in reflective conversations and attends dance workshops that namecheck the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” — its famous mirror dance in particular. Sometimes accompanied by a jazzy, wistfully mysterious score of staccato beats, these vignettes never quite add up to a coherent whole. Nor do they reveal anything substantial about Chloe beyond the obvious: that she’s a searching soul obstructed by grief (and some language barriers), afraid to take the next step towards her future.

More revealing are Chloe’s frequent dreams, often evoked visually in the film despite her insistent claim that she can’t remember them. These erratic flashes almost function like the interludes of a musical composition, lending the film a richer dimension, imbued with the ambiguities of the subconscious. Chloe is haunted by her husband’s passing: Their journeys together to the sites of erupting volcanoes and ski resorts show up in her sleep, alongside more mundane moments of everyday life.

Philosophically speaking, there is some intrigue in watching her try to make new memories while awake, whether taking in sights and spicy foods, playing with Futaba or allowing Toshi tease the boundaries of friendship. Still, we remain frustratingly on the outside, unable to bond with her. While Gray’s aesthetic preference for cool long shots does photographic justice to soothing cityscapes, it’s less conducive to human interplay. You come to “Blood” for its aura of spiritual sustenance, only to leave it feeling curiously alienated and undernourished. In this case, even the water is thicker.

‘Blood’ Review: A Young Widow Searches For Meaning in an Unconventional But Uninvolving Character Study

Reviewed online, Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 23, 2022. Running time: 111 MIN.

  • Production: A Mutressa Movies production. Producers: David Urrutia, Bradley Rust Gray, So Yong Kim, Elika Portnoy, Alex Orlovsky, Jonathon Komack Martin. Executive producers: Carla Juri, Blake Goza.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Bradley Rust Gray. Camera: Eric Lin. Editor: Gray, Susan E. Kim. Music: Daniel Bjarnason.
  • With: Carla Juri, Takashi Ueno, Gustaf Skarsgård, Futaba Okazaki, Issey Ogata. (English, Japanese, Icelandic, German dialogue.)