OAFF: December (2022)

Since his daughter’s murder seven years ago, Katsu Higuchi (Shogen) has lived in a haze of grief and alcohol. Once a successful author, he has not written anything new in years. His ex-wife Sumiko (Megumi) has remarried. When a letter informs him that Kana Fukuda (Ryo Matsuura), the young woman who killed his daughter, has applied for early release, Katsu is committed to doing whatever necessary to keep her behind bars.

December, from director Anshul Chauhan, is a modestly conceived legal drama. It is small in scale, and avoids shock twists and turns in favour of quiet, introspective drama. This is enormously to its benefit. It is a film of strong characters, and the realistic challenges that face them. Chauhan, working from a script by Rand Colter and Mina Moteki, delivers the film’s central elements in the most personal manner imaginable. It is impossible to watch without thinking at least once ‘what would I do?’

Kana was 17 years old when she murdered Emi Higuchi (Kanon Narumi, seen in flashbacks), yet the original judge sentenced her as an adult to 20 years in prison. There is not a mystery to resolve here. The film makes it expressly clear from the outset that Kana is definitely guilty of the crime for which she was convinced. The question is not whether or not she should have been gaoled but rather how long should she have been gaoled for? Ryo Matsuura is excellent as Kana, and delivers a performance that manages to be sympathetic and ever-so-slightly suspicious at the same time.

To be honest it is not only a smart basis for a legal drama, but a particularly Japanese one. In Japan cases do not go to trial unless the authorities are particularly convinced they will result in guilty verdicts. Japan’s conviction rate of 99 per cent is a result of that. In this regard, December is not simply refreshing but also realistic.

The mononymous Shogen plays Katsu in a sullen, tortured manner that cleverly sparks with hints of the man he used to be. His alcoholism is, to be honest, rather overplayed, but in scenes with Megumi (another one-name actor) he brings a wonderful tension to the part and really soars. Megumi has a bit more material – not to mention a second relationship to play with Sumiko’s new husband – and as a result comes across as the stronger of the two. They make for a good pair on-screen, benefiting from good writing.

Nothing is easy in Chauhan’s film. Kana could be a victim or a villain, but winds up somewhere in between. Her lawyer – and Toru Kizu is splendidly charismatic in the role – could be a forthright crusader or something more suspect and cynical, and to be honest he seems like both. The question of whether or not Katsu and Sumiko will reunite seems less interesting than the overall uncertainty their reunion during the retrial generates. Everything is shot in an engaging style that manages to be stylish without seeming showy.

Barring a release by an English language streamer – and there categorically should be one – it may be difficult for December to reach a non-Japanese audience. A small, independent drama focused on domestic legal issues? It may be challenging to get an international crowd to embrace it, but of course this kind of culturally specific drama is precisely why it is worth watching foreign cinema in the first place.

December is currently screening at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. For more information click here.

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