It’s a genuinely rewarding experience when you find a new director that you find intriguing. Mostly because as the consumer, it’s then a research project to find everything that person has ever done and then dissect which films you can go find to watch immediately. When I watched Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, I had that experience instantly. I wanted to see more of Rysuke Hamaguchi’s films. So I bought a Criterion Blu-ray copy of Drive My Car back in July. Shortly after that, I saw that his student film, Passion, was going to be released by Film Movement on Blu-ray, and I was eager to get a copy. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long, because the opportunity to review presented itself even before the release date. Let’s dive into this film and see the early workings of a true master of the conversation.
Note: I apologize in advance that I’m unable to identify several of the actresses (the roles of Sanae, Marie, and Hana) in this film. Usually I’m spot-on about these things (but there is no information on the internet as to who these women are real-name-wise). If someone knows, please contact me or leave a comment.
We open the movie to a burial. It seems that a 26 (not a misprint) year old cat named Rabi has passed on to the great litterbox in the sky. Kenchiro (played by Nao Okabe) digs the grave, while Takako (played by Fusako Urabe) looks on. Eventually Kenchiro is able to finish the digging (I had to bury my own cat in my early 30’s; this is truly tough work for sure), Takako says a few words silently as she prays. Then the both of them make their way back to the city.
Next scene, we are in traffic at the back of a taxicab that has avoided a collision. After recovering for a minute, Tomoya (played by Ryuta Okamoto) and Kaho (played by Aoba Kawai) talk about their upcoming dinner party with friends. It’s a celebration of Kaho’s 29th birthday, but they are already late. Kaho, who works as a math teacher at the local junior high, is more eager to make an announcement about herself and Tomoya. Tomoya is a bit nervous but eventually agrees to go along with that announcement later on at the dinner.
When Tomoya and Kaho finally make their way to the dinner at the restaurant, Kenchiro and his friend Sanae are already seated at the table and greet the two. They make conversation until the two hosts of the party show up. Eventually they do; it’s married couple Takeshi (played by Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and Marie, who is pregnant and delights in talking about her pending birth. They enjoy a little cake for Kaho’s birthday and have a little too much to drink as they carry into the night.
Then the announcement comes from Kaho and Tomoya. They are getting married! This is usually followed by applause, which seems somehow muted in this respect. There are many nervous looks at this table including from Kenchiro who doesn’t appear happy at all. When pressed by his friends, he confirms his unhappiness. He also makes the comment, “Kaho, when you leave him, marry me.” The table for the most part including Tomoya and Kaho take it in a joking manner. However, the one person who doesn’t is Sanae, who starts to cry and then excuses herself.
The group soon splits up with everyone saying goodnight to each other. But the night has just started for the men, Tomoya, Kenchiro, and Takeshi. Kenchiro lays the bombshell that he once slept with Sanae about five or six years ago as they head to Takako’s apartment. However, that will be far from the most significant bombshell that is said or acted upon tonight and in the days to come. Everyone will be affected, and no one will be spared as the truth comes to the surface.
Talk about a first effort by director, Rysuke Hamaguchi. This movie as expected is on a low budget, but it comes away with so much more depth than any reasonable person could expect. Hamaguchi, as I’ve expressed many times in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, is a master of the conversation. I didn’t expect that would show up so easily in a student film. It is very rare that the five most important characters (Kaho, Tomoya, Kenchiro, Takako and Takeshi) are all given equal time to grow and develop as the film cuts away the layers of each character so openly. But that’s exactly what happens here, and kudos should go to the direction and the performances of those involved.
This is topped off by an amazing scene involving Tomoya, Takako, and Takeshi where they are at Takako’s apartment in what serves as the climax to the film. Hamaguchi tends to capture the essence of pretty much every conversation and situation I found myself in in college so many years ago. I identified greatly with the Kenchiro character, as he serves as the nice guy with his heart on his sleeve who is often forgotten when it comes to meaningful relationships. There is a lot of what I call intermingling here (won’t spoil any of it, naturally) and that may turn off some viewers including loyal ones like myself, but once you get past that, you realize that it is a powerful film.
On the negative side, there is much that could be improved upon. I would really like to bring back the characters of Sanae or Marie, who only show up for one scene each (the dinner party), and then are only mentioned by the other characters for the rest of the film. I’m not in love with the teaching scene, as it is a powerful part but really doesn’t fit the rest of the film. In addition, I think that the entirety of the film should have been shot at night except for the Kaho and Kenchiro scene near the end, which is in the early morning. These are minor quibbles, and I have to remind myself that Hamaguchi would become a better editor of his films as evidenced by later efforts. This is a very raw and powerful yet flawed production.
The video is in 1.78:1 widescreen. For a student film at early 21st century level, this has been well taken care of. Much of this is shot in Takako’s dwelling but there is a fair amount of Tokyo’s city landscape shown as well in both the daytime and night. Color is excellent with care to a lot of depth in each shot. There are only a few times where the light is not adequate making it difficult to distinguish the on-screen action. One very interesting scene at the end has Kaho and Kenchiro who are talking to each other but don’t even appear on the scene until a few minutes later as they drift into the shot. In this scene, we are allowed to focus on the conversation and the scenery around them rather than body language. There is much detail here to chew and when the tops of their heads appear, it’s an almost oh there you are moment because one is focused on everything else except their bodies.
The audio for this one is 2.0 PCM in Japanese. Subtitles are provided in English and can be turned off (if so desired). That PCM part is not a misprint as you have to keep in mind that Passion was not meant to be a movie that focuses on anything except the art of conversation. There are no problems with dialog or with the reading of the subtitles. There is so much to understand with the talking back and forth early on that might leave you confused at first but the film comes back and leaves with a much clearer understanding. There aren’t many environment sounds here except for the near collision at the beginning (which comes in quite loudly) and some other city type noises but what’s there does the job.
- Trailers: Passion, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge
- Introduction by Rysuke Hamaguchi 2:57: Hamaguchi talks about the film a little bit of how he made this in grad school at the Tokyo University of the Arts. He was studying under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who was essential to Japanese horror in his own right. It’s a shame that it wasn’t a longer interview instead of an intro. It leaves a lot of questions about the movie unanswered.
- From Passion to Fortune, a video essay by Kenji Fujishima 9:03: This unfortunately did not have subs which it could have benefitted from since we never see Kenji on camera so we can’t read this lips accordingly. (I can partially read lips, it’s something I’m developing as I get older). Fujishima is a film and theater critic based in New York City. He talks of good length about the movie but also Hamaguchi’s other works including Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy as well as Happy Hour. The latter of which I now have to go find which apparently is only on distribution from a very small Brooklyn based company (Kimstim). I would have liked this also to be a little longer but it adds some depth to the film.
- NOTE: I have to mention it, but past blu-ray releases from Film Movement (I have several) including Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy have had clear cases. This one was a plain blue blu-ray case. Yes, yes, I can be OCD at times but aren’t all blu-ray collectors?
Ryskuke’s Hamaguchi’s Passion feels like every romance and friendship I’ve almost ever experienced in my 20’s. The long nights, the conversations, the random affairs, and the broken hearts all wrapped up in a tidy span of two hours. It’s a great first entry by this awesome director and while I might not agree with all of his choices in this film, it’s still a movie that I plan to revisit in the future as I do feel it needs repeat viewings in order to understand all of the dialog and content. This film should you allow it will absorb you for the duration of the film and chances are will leave you thinking about it for days to come.
I have said this many times before but Film Movement needs to do more blu-rays. I greatly appreciate the work here on this blu-ray disc with a great picture and surprisingly decent audio. The extras leave much to be desired but do add a little bit of depth to the film. As an easter-egg to those who have read this far into the review, but three of the actors and actresses in this film would later pop up in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and it is really wonderful to see how each of those people have progressed in their craft. For those who have never seen any of Hamaguchi’s films before, I would suggest that you start with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy or Drive My Car before coming back to Passion. Anyway, well recommended for anyone familiar with Hamaguchi’s style or love conversation dominant films. Enjoy.