Friday 5 May 2017

Mystery men: "Harmonium"

The Japanese writer-director Koji Fukada has been quietly carving a name for himself in the sidebars of the Cannes film festival, yet while UK distributors have understood he's someone they and we should take note of, they still seem a touch unsure as to who exactly they've got on their hands: he's neither the cuddly-accessible Hirokazu Kore-eda, nor an obvious genre fiend in the Kiyoshi Kurosawa mould, which may explain why it took two years for Fukada's broadly admired yet tricky-to-sell 2014 breakthrough Au revoir l'été to drift onto our screens. His latest Harmonium, which has taken but twelve months to reach us, ventures into territory previously charted by such provocations as Theorem and Brimstone and Treacle, albeit with a keynote of restraint: yet again, we witness an outsider-figure turning an altogether staid family unit on its head, but the twist - or is it a gag? - is that said family's constituent members at first appear far too timidly polite to do anything about it.

We immediately grasp that this house is divided from the way Fukada frames its inhabitants around the breakfast table: devout mum Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) saying grace with her young daughter on one side of the screen, distant patriarch Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) listlessly chowing down while parsing the newspaper on the other. The tumult, such as it is, begins when Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), one of dad's old associates, shows up in the garage Toshio uses as an engineering workshop, fresh from serving a prison stretch for murder, and quickly wheedles his way into both a job and the family's spare room. From his upright bearing and permanently buttoned-down collar, we sense Yasaka is an odd fish - yet he pays more benign-seeming attention to Akié and the child than does the original man of the house, going so far as to talk to the former (which Yasaka, curmudgeon that he is, never does) and to teach the latter the instrument of the title.

Presumably Fukada chose the harmonium for its ability to leave notes of discordance hanging in the air: from an early point, we both see and hear that there are certain elements in this household (husband and wife; even the husband and his pal) which don't really chime. We could add one more pair to this list: Fukada's narrative and his handling of the narrative. The reason for Yasaka's reappearance, it transpires, is one which has sustained countless psychothrillers over the decades, but for at least its first half, the film presents as a sunny slowburn: the characters go fishing or to church, potter around the home and garage, make plans to attend a concert no-one finally gets to. (Later on, there will be a scene in which the action consists entirely of one character clipping their toenails; you begin to see why those distributors have been so jittery.) We're headed towards rupture, and a narrative elision of at least a decade, which reconfigures mealtimes and brings a new face to the table - raising the question of how he might connect to the events of the past.

As to whether we're any closer to knowing just what kind of filmmaker Fukada is, the answer is probably not. For much of its running time, Harmonium inhabits a serene backwater midway between Ozu-ish formal conservatism and the subversion Takeshi Miike displayed in Visitor Q; every time the film looks to be headed towards one of those poles, Fukada doubles back, taking viewer expectations with him. It's possible his aim was to cover as much ground as possible - to demonstrate to producers he can do anything, while proving to critics he's his own man - but some of it feels perilously familiar: the second half introduces a dynamic the Dardennes brought to Cannes a decade or so back. It remains intriguing, and that elision is a very bold piece of storytelling, demanding that the actors return (and convince anew) as deeply changed figures, which they do. Yet for all the elegant, tragic symmetries that second half generates, the overall project emerges as fundamentally elusive. It could be that, in twenty years' time, we'll come to regard Harmonium as a rich wellspring of auteurist motifs, but right now, Fukada looks to me a filmmaker more easily admired than embraced.

Harmonium opens in selected cinemas from today.

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