“Asako I & II” begins with love at first sight: College student Asako (Erika Karata) locks eyes with the dashing Baku (Masashiro Higashide) at a photography exhibit, and within minutes of exiting the gallery, they’ve fallen into each other’s arms. Moments later, they’re a happy couple, seemingly incapable of conflict, as if universe willed them together. Even when they crash a motorcycle and land safely side by side in the middle of the road, they can’t stop giggling like children. Nothing can breach their bond.
If this sounds ludicrous, you’re not alone. “Nobody meets like that!” says Asako’s close pal Haryuo (Sairi Ito), and her suspicions come to bear moments later, when Baku suddenly abandons Asako with no explanation. Years later in Tokyo, Asako thinks she spots Baku working at a sake business near the café where she’s a barista. But it’s actually Ryohei (also played by Masashiro), a genial, soft-spoken young man confused by Asako’s sudden advances. No matter: Asako starts dating the guy anyway, but doesn’t tell him about the physical similarities to an old flame that drew her to him in the first place.
This remarkable setup forms the central romantic mystery of Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new feature: As Asako builds her life with Ryohei, she maintains a secret obsession with the man from her past, and it’s unclear if she actually cares for the new guy or uses him as a placeholder. For Hamaguchi, best known to arthouse audiences in the West for his five-hour drama “Happy Hour,” this comparatively short two-hour excursion further demonstrates his storytelling ambition.
“Asako I & II” sometimes feels listless, but it’s never less than an exquisite showcase for nuanced performances and a filmmaker in complete control of idiosyncratic material. The talky romance that wouldn’t look out of place in Eric Rohmer’s oeuvre, and suggests what might happen if the New Wave auteur attempted to revise “Vertigo” with a fresh context. Hamaguchi’s ninth feature 12 years confirms he’s one of the most innovative filmmakers in contemporary Asian cinema.
As times goes on, Asako settles into her life with Ryohei and finds herself trapped between the perfect memories of the man she once loved and the good-natured one who supports her current existence. Unsure whether she’s actually in love with her partner, or using him as a placeholder for romantic ideal, a friend puts it bluntly: “Gratitude isn’t love.”
But is that all there is to it? When Baku resurfaces years later, she finds herself forced to confront her earlier feelings. It’s a development that demands audiences accept the body-double conceit, but the movie unfolds with such an unassuming focus on Asako’s conflict that it rarely strains credibility. At its best, “Asako” serves as a meditation on the definition of true love — if it exists at all — and how the passage of time can deepen a relationship by virtue of the continuing desire for companionship. In one prolonged sequence set during the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, Ryohei and Haruyo areseparated in the chaos and their eventual reunion arrives like a spiritual revelation: In difficulty times, everyone needs someone to love.
“Asako I & II” invites an obvious feminist critique: Why does this woman need either man? The very premise implies a sexist assumption from a different era. Fortunately, Hamaguchi anticipates as much, setting the stage for a final-act showdown in which Asako attempts to reconcile her relationships to both men and arrives at a point of ambiguity that feels more appropriate. Nevertheless, the movie never catapults beyond its main premise, settling instead for humming along with intelligent observations that come in fits and starts. It doesn’t arrive at any grand epiphanies, and its central premise at times seems almost too neat, as if the filmmaker were so confident in its appeal that not every scene needed to hold weight.
However, Hamaguchi finds ways of crystallizing the movie’s themes, lingering on contemplative moments that position the entire story as a metaphor for the contrast between the fantasies and realities of relationships, as well as the messy negotiation required to navigate those extremes. By the finale, Hamaguchi has earned the right to one blunt image — the soothing image of a stream that never stops flowing — and leaves you with the lingering sense that Asako’s conundrum is just a small component of a river that never stops flowing along. It’s refreshing to see a high-concept movie that doesn’t assume every love story has to reach a tidy conclusion, and implies that some happy endings are best left open-ended.
“Asako I & II” premiered in Official Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.