Enormous personal events unfold throughout Kôji Fukada’s soulful Japanese drama “Love Life,” premiering at the Venice Film Festival: a marriage, a reunion, an affair and, most notably, a death. And yet the scale in which Fukada works — as both writer and director — is so deliberately intimate that immense experiences feel microcosmic, while tiny moments make a huge impact.
His heroine, Taeko (Fumino Kimura), is so self-effacing that it often feels as though she would erase herself if she could. Most of the time, she is able to look to others for meaning and definition; in her small, generic flat within a block of large, generic apartment buildings, she serves her in-laws, her husband, her son Keita (Tetta Shimada). At work, from a cubicle or a sidewalk, she serves as a social advocate, helping unhoused and otherwise disadvantaged strangers.
When she can’t find something to do, she lingers in near-immobility, as if she’s waiting for the next event to guide her. Tragically, the event that transforms her life is the worst one imaginable. And though it changes everything day to day, it only serves to entrench her further.
When her world turns upside-down, her husband Jiro (Kento Nagayama) retreats to his former girlfriend (Hirona Yamazaki). Her in-laws, who never approved of Taeko, move away. And her first husband, Park (Atom Sunada), who abandoned her and their child years earlier, shows up unexpectedly.
Taeko harbors reasonable resentment towards Park, who is definitely a liar, possibly a grifter, and unreliable to the extreme. But he’s also the ideal match for her: as a deaf Korean, he is naturally unmoored in Japan. He is also homeless and someone to whom Taeko can — to Jiro’s increasing concern — direct all her own caretaker impulses.
Fukada (“Harmonium”), who was inspired by Akiko Yano’s plaintive 1991 pop song (also called “Love Life”), works in miniature. Each careful frame and uncomfortably long take is composed with infinite patience. He then builds these out into weighty, ironic juxtapositions, as his cramped settings fill up with people separated by deep emotional chasms. Characters often stand quietly still while trying to communicate, the silence impactfully extending each time Park and Taeko speak to each other in sign language.
All of the performances are touching, though it can be tough to connect with either Taeko or Jiro since they have such a hard time connecting themselves. And as the film unfolds, Fukada increases the space between them, physically and emotionally.
In contrast, Park is both shifty and shifting, alternately repellent and compelling. He doesn’t just come from different worlds; he inhabits them with an expansiveness that perpetually challenges the other characters’ caution. The movie begins with Taeko and Jiro’s family celebration and ends with Park’s. In between lies the span of an entire universe.
“Love Life” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.