Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) has long since abandoned life in Tokyo and his dreams of becoming an independent filmmaker. He is married, works a stable office job, and lives in the Kanto countryside. When his college girlfriend Marina (Nanami Kawakami) unexpectedly reconnects, he fakes a business trip to share a hotel tryst with her – and finds himself confronted by his past and his life choices.
The Modern Lovers, directed by Atsuro Shimoyashiro, is an independent Japanese drama. It is relatively short, running a svelte 81 minutes, but packs in both an intimate story between two leads and a broad spread of supporting characters. Certainly Tatsuo and Marina’s affair dominates, but what is seen beyond them is detailed enough to fascinate without being more than glimpses. Only Tatsuo’s wife seems under-served: ignorant of his affair and pregnant to boot, her voice feels rather silenced – but a film with her at its centre would be a very different thing.
Stars Morioka and Kawakami perform their central roles effectively. Kawakami in particular impresses, presenting Marina as superficial bright and outgoing – rather like an American ‘manic pixie dreamgirl’. Beneath that stereotype, however, hides a much greater depth. There is a tremendous amount of hurt to her, which leads one to question what inspired her sudden reconnection with Tatsuo. For his own park Morioka does a solid job of presenting Tatsuo with a large amount of moral ambiguity: he is the film’s protagonist, and that engenders a certain degree of audience identification – except he is morally dubious and not always likeable in his behaviour.
There is a strong sense of Korean director Hong Sang-soo about the work; not simply its filmmaker protagonist, but also the conversational tone and location settings. Characters walk around various towns and cities. The entire piece has a loose, spontaneous style to it, which can be maddening for some viewers not used to such a relaxed and informal pace. It is also decidedly non-judgemental, presenting both Tatsuo and Marina with an open point of view. Both are engaging in adultery, but emotionally their former relationship trumps their current situations. It creates an interesting balance, because in terms of his actual actions Tatsuo is a regularly repellent individual. In one critical scene he takes photographs of a naked Marina while she is asleep – it is a deeply insidious moment, and the film takes no steps to judge or punish him further.
The film is also punctuated by two egregious sex scenes that feel garishly unnecessary and positively soaked in the male gaze. Much comes down to how the scenes play out and are captured by the camera. They seem very much to be a distraction and not well justified in their presented form.’
There is a nice sense of cultural literacy to the film. References to independent cinema are lightly peppered across the work, showing off Tatsuo’s old passions without ever feeling overplayed. Similarly there is a nice sense of popular music throughout, most clearly through the repeated references to a song by Akira Kurosawa (not the filmmaker) and Los Primos. It haunts the film, following the lovers wherever they go and developing greater significance in the final act.
Much gets left unsaid by the film’s conclusion, and this gives it a fascinating openness. It is an ending that seems intended to leave the audience with questions rather than satisfaction. One exits the cinema pondering the film’s characters and events, and becoming more impressed the longer one ponders.