In an outer suburb of Tokyo, Kanya Ichizawa (Sadawo Abe) and his wife Satoko (Takako Matsu) own and operate a popular local restaurant. When a freak accident sees their restaurant burn down, they are inconsolable. Satoko does her best to make ends meet by working in a nearby ramen shop, but Kanya slips further and further into depression. When Kanya winds up sleeping with one of their former customers – who then gives him a large sum of money with which to fund rebuilding his own restaurant – Satoko sees an opportunity to reclaim their lost investment by setting him up with other, more unsuspecting, women.
It should not come as a surprise that women are woefully under-represented behind the camera in film. The situation seems particularly bad in many Asian countries – and Japan is no exception. One of the key women who has managed to make a long-running career out of directing films is Miya Nishikawa – former assistant director to the acclaimed Hirokazu Kore-eda and now a well accomplished and feted director in her own right. Her fourth film Dreams for Sale is a beautifully shot, morally ambiguous drama that is centred on two excellent performances. It is a remarkably bleak film, offering no easy answers and slowly sliding into a sort of distasteful miasma of poor life choices and cruel deception. The similarities between Nishikawa and Kore-eda’s films are rather clear: both quite slow and measured in their pace, both focused on strong performances, and both presenting rather downbeat profiles of human behaviour.
This is a remarkably slow film, running for well over two hours with a plot that could be fully expressed in 90 minutes. At first this can frustrate, but as the film’s distinctive rhythms become clear they allow a stronger focus on the characters and the uniformly excellent performances. Takako Matsu is absolutely brilliant as Satoko. She begins the film so defiantly cheerful, but once Kanya’s infidelity is revealed she slowly becomes consumed by her resentment towards him. At first it seems like her plan for Kanya to seduce vulnerable women and then scam them out of their savings is a means to an end. As the film progresses it becomes clear she’s using it as a punishment: like a bad parent catching their child drinking alcohol and forcing them to drink the whole bottle, she forces Kanya again and again into seducing all manner of fragile, brittle women in order to emotionally wound and torture him. Between this and Confessions, Matsu seems a skilled creator of dark and complex performances. She is one of Japan’s best contemporary actors.
Sadawo Abe plays Kanya as an immensely fallible and guilt-stricken man. He seems to engage in Satoko’s plan in order to punish himself, and it is heart-breaking watching him meet a series of vulnerable women – all of whom could make him happier than his distanced, increasingly vindictive wife – only to screw them over time and time again. Both Abe and Matsu are walking a tightrope in this film, because it would be easy to make both characters deeply unsympathetic. Instead they make them very familiar and relatable, and that makes the film’s slow descent incredibly effective. Of Kanya’s victims the most striking is Hitomi (Yuki Ebara), a weight-lifter and physical education teacher in contention for the Olympic team. She is saddled with painful body image issues that Kanya comes to exploit. Ebara plays her part with such soul and heart that she is immediately sympathetic; her brief relationship with Kanya shows his and Satoko’s plan at its most cruel.
Dreams for Sale is a straight-up tragedy: its endgame is visible from the moment Kanya is unfaithful to Satoko, but each character seems cursed to perform the most awful and inevitable of actions, and to make one wrong choice after another, until all there seems to be in the end is emotional wreckage. This is not an easy film, but it is an absolutely remarkable one.
An earlier version of this review was published at The Angriest.