An enormously poignant melodrama told at the volume of a broken whisper, Kōji Fukada’s “Love Life” represents a major breakthrough for a filmmaker (“A Girl Missing,” “The Real Thing”) who’s found the perfect story for his probing but distant style. In that light, it doesn’t seem incidental that “Love Life” is a story about distance — specifically the distance between people who reach for each other in the wake of a tragedy that strands them far away from themselves.
Inspired by the plaintive 1991 Akiko Yano song of the same name (in which the Japanese singer croons, “Whatever the distance between us, nothing can stop me from loving you”), “Love Life” introduces us to a domestic idyll that it disrupts with a deceptive casualness typical of Fukada’s work. The bloom comes off the rose slowly at first, and then all at once in a single moment of everyday awfulness.
Taeko (Fumino Kimura) lives with her six-year-old son, Keita (Tetta Shimada) — a preternaturally brilliant Othello champion — and her good-looking husband, Jiro (Kento Nagayama). The three of them share a cozy, sunlit apartment in a small Japanese city where everyone seems to know each other and get along just great. And yet, throughout the sneaky first act of a film that’s revealed to be rigorously constructed in spite of its informal appearance, little details begin to rub against the surface.
That subtle dissonance starts with a surprise party in disarray, which is soon compounded by a strange bit of tension between Taeko and the unfamiliar woman she meets among a group of her neighbors (Hirona Yamazaki as Yamazaki) and the revelation that Keita is Taeko’s son from a previous marriage. She and Jiro have only been married a year, and her new husband’s parents — who live across the courtyard in the same apartment complex — are so quietly disdainful of their son marrying a “castoff” that Jiro has delayed the process of adopting Keita. It turns out he’ll never get the chance: The little boy slips while playing near the bathtub, falls into the water that Taeko forgot to drain, and drowns before anyone notices.
This being a Fukada film, the reaction to the kid’s death is muted to the point of implosion. It’s only when a deaf, homeless, half-Korean man named Park (Atom Sunada) storms into Keita’s colorless funeral in a filthy yellow cardigan and smacks Taeko across the face as she stands beside the open casket that any trace of feeling breaks through. Park, we discover, is the ex-husband who disappeared on Taeko and Keita one day. And Yamazaki? Well, it turns out Jiro was dating her when he fell in love with Taeko, who still doesn’t know that she’s effectively “the other woman” in her own marriage (somewhat hard to believe in a community where everyone seems to know each other’s business).
On paper, this scenario might seem to have the makings of an overblown soap opera, but Fukada nudges his plot forward in a decidedly minor key. His film is much less concerned with any sexual entanglements between its characters than with the closeness they feel towards one another (or don’t). There is hardly a hint of renewed physical attraction between Taeko and Park — or any indication that she might be able to forgive him for leaving their family way back when — but watching Taeko volunteer as her ex-husband’s Korean Sign Language translator raises a question that hangs in the air for the rest of the movie: Will she try to escape her grief by moving forward into the future, or by searching for solace in the recesses of her past? As “Love Life” thaws out and begins to flow toward its achingly beautiful final act, that tantalizing question gradually gives way to another: Why should Taeko have to choose between the two?
The unfinished Othello game she keeps on the kitchen table from the day Keita died suggests that Taeko would stay completely still if it were up to her, but the earthquake that rumbles through the apartment one day is a keen reminder that it’s not. Stasis isn’t the answer, and isolation will only make things worse. Not that Taeko’s in-laws seem to care much about that; they take Keita’s death as an excuse to make a long-awaited move to the country, one of several plot details that highlights the relationship between physical and emotional distances in a film that often seems less interested in dramatizing its story than it does in drawing it like a map.
While “Love Life” has its fair share of sharply written heart-to-hearts, many of its most touching moments (and all of its most telling ones) hinge on a certain kind of emotional geography. It’s the way that Park, once unhoused, begins sleeping in the empty apartment across from Taeko and Jiro once the latter’s parents move out of town. It’s the reflections of sunlight that cut across Jiro’s eye-line from across the courtyard, and the way that Taeko is seen speaking to someone just out of frame as the messiness of her feelings spills over the clear borders we’re supposed to dig around them.
It might seem easier (and more socially acceptable) for Taeko and Jiro to cut Park and Yamazaki out of their lives, but our hearts don’t quite work like that. Our sense of home doesn’t either, as “Love Life” explores in ways both domestic and international. For the characters in Fukada’s film — a gentle and effervescent watch in spite of its tragic premise — denying that truth ultimately leads them to confront the distance they’ve created from themselves. You don’t have to leave people behind, Fukada insists with a grace that all but forces you to lower your guard, his sordid yet touching family saga mining terrific pathos from the misapprehension that most of us would even know how. And every time Taeko looks at the interrupted game of Othello that Keita will never be able to finish, life seems just a little bit easier to love as a result.
“Love Life” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, and will make its North American debut at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.