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    Wild Berries

    Kin-dread spirits

    Family dysfunction, cheating, lying and death combine to make the Japanese film "Wild Berries" a subtle but satisfying drama.


    "Wild Berries," the debut of Japanese director Nishikawa Miwa, proves that in a world of national, cultural and economic divisions, one thing is universal about dysfunctional families: awkward dinner-table conversations.

    Directed by: Nishikawa Miwa.
    Cast: Miyasako Hiroyuki, Tsumiki Miho, Hiraizumi Sei, Otani Naoko.
    In Japanese with English subtitles.
    New Directors / New Films 2003
  • Angela
  • Bus 174
  • Camp
  • The Embalmer
  • The Guys
  • Hukkle

  • The Missing Gun
  • Mondays in the Sun
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  • Wild Berries
  • Respiro

  • Festival site
  • It is to the 29-year-old Miwa's credit, in constructing a cast of vastly unalike yet equally forceful characters, that her film's particular family, the middle-class Akechis, are so interesting and entertaining in their attempts to co-exist under one roof. Let alone get through dinner.

    The movie, screening March 31 and April 1 as part of the 32nd New Directors/New Films Festival, is an impressive first offering of a young screenwriter/director, even if the movie proceeds at a frustratingly even (that is, unhurried) pace to American audiences accustomed to accelerating plots.

    "Wild Berries" is subtle, for sure, and its success comes in small, satisfying moments of triumph and failure between a cast forced by blood relations to address, not avoid, their family faults.

    As in most dysfunctional families, the Akechis come with a convenient topic of avoidance. In this case it's grandpa (Toru Tezuka), a surly, half-deaf, soup-slurping distraction for malcontented businessman father Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi), servile and slightly overwhelmed mother (Naoko Otani) and kindhearted school-teacher daughter Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki).

    The story begins at breakfast, with little conversation. Afterward, Yoshiro and Tomoko ride the subway together into Tokyo, while mom's stoicism begins to crack as she's left home with grandpa. On the train, dad criticizes daughter for talking on a cell phone, saying it makes her look like a "fool," and adding that he'd never own one because then he'd never be away from the workplace.

    Soon we learn that, in truth, dad has recently been laid off but is too proud to tell his family. He still commutes every morning, dressed in a business suit and poring over the financial pages of the newspaper, and arrives home every evening grousing about how he's overworked. After a halfhearted extortion attempt with his former employer, we begin to sense the impending doom of debt that will soon create the film's crisis point — in the form of circling loan sharks.

    The wild card in the story is disinherited son Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who is in the midst of scamming a funeral home by pretending to be the protege of a recently deceased professor and volunteering to handle donations (all 1.2 million yen) at the funeral service.

    The alternating plots balance the first half of the film, with Shuji's scam sequences adding looseness and laughs to the tenuous clinging to appearances at the Akechi home, all the while suggesting a parallel in the two forms of facade.

    Miwa effectively uses longer, freer shots of the corrupt yet likeable Shuji, many of him walking away from the camera to suggest a grifter one step ahead, and flavors his craftiest flim-flamming with James Brown-inspired funk.

    After the introduction of a new boyfriend for Tomoko, the death of Grandpa is the catalyst that pushes the film forward. At grandpa's funeral — a bit too coincidentally at the same parlor where Shuji is running his racket — all the divergent elements of the film's first act collide, brought on by the cash-collecting loan sharks.

    It is the film's biggest stumble. Amid a ridiculous shoving match, the estranged Shuji arrives to rescue his father from the goons, utilizing all his street smarts to impersonate a lawyer and scare them away. The scene is a major contrivance, but ultimately excusable as it pushes the son, albeit implausibly, back into the family life.

    What follows, in addition to self-realizations for each character, is the central conflict of the second half: Is Shuji back to help save the shamed family from bankruptcy or is he merely seizing the opportunity to hustle his own father?

    It's a question in need of answering, and that duty falls to the character most trusting and least likely to confront the darkness in human nature — his own ever-trusting sister.

    In the movie's final sequence, Tomoko learns the truth about her brother and the audience learns the inspiration of the title of the film. And along the way, the Akechis learn that while you may be able to hide from yourself, you can never hide from your family.

    MARCH 29, 2003

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