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‘Blood’ Review: ‘Wetlands’ Star Carla Juri Grieves Through a Meandering Soul Search in Japan

Sundance: Juri gives a full-blooded performance in "Jack and Diane" director Bradley Gray Rust's otherwise gossamer grief odyssey.



Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

Swiss actress Carla Juri showed us how far she could push us in the ick-factor department with 2013’s squirmy and riotously distasteful coming-of-age sex comedy “Wetlands.” In “The Exploding Girl” and “Jack and Diane” director Bradley Rust Gray’s gently plaintive soul-searching odyssey “Blood,” his latest low-key, melancholy outing, Juri shows more restraint but packs no less punch as a widow named Chloe. Adrift after the death of her husband, she finds herself in Japan on business, wandering an unfamiliar landscape that also emerges as a backdrop to her mourning. Despite Juri’s commitment, however, the world Rust has built around her (vividly conjuring the magic of on-location Japan) blunts the performance and ultimately leaves just a gossamer, alienating impression.

But how beautiful that scenic backdrop is. Awash in memories of her late husband and their trips exploring the wild terrain of Iceland, photographer Chloe is welcomed in Japan by her old friend Toshi (Takashi Ueno), whom she appears to have a nervous but well-worn-into affection for. There’s a bit of a will-they-or-won’t-they air hanging around them, though Gray’s muted and mostly meandering screenplay does little to build off that suspense. Toshi, who wears baggy clothes and appears disheveled and a little lost through most of the movie, doesn’t really get much of a shot at character development either. Though our suspicions of his amorousness toward Chloe are confirmed by an awkward moment where, after much platonic friendly time together, he asks her out on a date, and she shuts him down.

That might be because Chloe is most definitely still grieving her husband, and cinematographer Eric Lin lets us in on some of her most wrenching reveries, generally filming from a distance to drink in the environs — until a crucial moment late in the film when a sobbing Chloe finally breaks down. She’s up against a mountain of barriers here, in the form of language, personal obstacles, and otherwise.

“Blood” is a patient and observant film that asks its audience to be equally patient and observant — to mixed results. There are a few characters who come and go out of this almost docudrama-style film, like Toshi’s adorable daughter Futaba (Futaba Okazaki), as well as his grandmother (Sachiko Ohshima). Toshi is a musician, and we get a little bit of a glimpse into that world. But the film illuminates more brightly amid its overall mundanity in moments of, well, patient observation: as Toshi and Chloe enjoy a spicy noodle dish, or a local lets them in on the secrets to making perfect soba noodles.

Gray said he built the film specifically with Juri in mind, and that shows, as she’s in nearly every scene of the movie. And there are a lot of them unfolding in short succession, keeping the progression of time slightly out of reach at all times. Gray also drew inspiration from Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (a mater of patience), as well as Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, to whom Hou’s “Cafe Lumiere” was an homage. There’s a documentary-like realism to the film aided amply by what are mostly non-professional Japanese actors adding a sense of reality that’s far more compelling than the interiors of the characters sketched in the screenplay. And the locations are quite a thing to behold, conjuring up moments of sleepy beauty that exactly recall the kinds of filmmakers Gray seems to be chasing here.

At the core of it all, Juri’s performance is a marvel of coiled emotion and wide-eyed wonder at the world around her. It’s just that the film around her does a disservice to that performance. Juri is an actress that the filmmakers and camera obviously love, but perhaps aren’t sure of how to fit the best tribute to her gifts. This is a low-key, kickback movie with moments of profundity, but is perhaps too enamored of the beauty of its given surroundings to show us something compellingly new.

Grade: C+

“Blood” world-premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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