Shinzo Katayama has worked as assistant to Bong Joon-ho (TOKYO, Mother) and Nobuhiro Yamashita (My Back Page, Kueki Ressha) but this is actually his debut in the director’s seat. His effort, of depicting a lowlife man who is trying to take care of his mentally disabled sister was a difficult theme to begin with, but Katayama really took it a step further, in the process creating a movie that hits like a punch with its almost grotesque realism. Let us take things from the beginning, though.
Yoshio lives with his sister Mariko, who is mentally disabled. He works at the docks, but the money he gets are not enough, and the siblings inhabit a completely run-down house, barely sustaining themselves. Mariko goes wondering off frequently, and Yoshio has made a routine of searching for her. In one of her wanderings, she is “delivered” by a fisherman, but when Yoshio finds money in her trousers and semen in her underwear, he realizes that something has gone wrong. Yoshio has one bad foot that makes him stumble when walking, and this ailment becomes the reason for him being laid off from the docks. Finding himself completely broke, having to pay the rent and with no money even for food, and after his best friend declines lending him money once more, and remembering the fisherman incident, decides to prostitute his sister. Mariko, who also seems to have a sex addiction, does not obstruct in any way, and the two start making a lot of money, despite the various issues the stumble upon, with their “clients”. However, reality soon comes knocking at their door.
Even touching upon a story like that would be considered taboo, but Katayama directs a movie that pulls no punches in the presentation of the aforementioned events, including the sex scenes. Through this rather shocking approach, he makes an extremely harsh comment about humans and their behavior. Yoshio is driven to such extremes due to his numbing poorness and his inability to take care of both his sister and himself, in a fate he did not have much to do with. However, this fate does not justify his actions in any way, and particularly the fact that he, eventually, gets used to his deeds. The fact that he is a lowlife is presented in a number of instances, but most of all in the fight with the school kids, which highlights both the difficulties of what he does and how low he has fallen.
One could say that the film shows where despair, and particularly the lack of financial stability, family and friends can lead a man, but the level humans can sink themselves actually dominates the narrative, not just due to Yoshio’s actions, but also due to his clients, who do not shy away from paying for sex with an obviously sick woman.
This is not the world Lee Chang-dong painted in “Oasis”, where elements of surrealism and romance toned down the situation. In Katayama’s world there is no solace due to love, no hope at all, just a never-ending downward spiral towards inhumanity, for an individual (Yoshio) that seems too far gone to even consider “being saved” or even retaining any kind of dignity.
Katayama’s approach becomes even harsher due to the use of handheld camera, and the many close ups, which give a more realistic, almost documentary-like approach to the film, making the various strong scenes even worse, with the use of sound heightening this sense even more.
And yet, in this truly hellish setting, he manages to entail a number of scenes of true beauty, mostly deriving from the sea and the beach, but most of all, during a scene where Mariko throws the pink cards with his number from a high place towards the ground. This sense even extends to the narrative, through the scene with the school boy and the man who suffers from dwarfism, although these sequences are not enough to reverse the general essence of the movie.
The acting is also excellent. Yuya Matsuura as Yoshio highlights his despair that leads him to total decay in the most convincing fashion, while Misa Wada is exceptional as Mariko, in a very difficult part that has her repeatedly in sex scenes. The chemistry of the two is also another asset, which also highlights Katayama’s directorial abilities.
If you want to see a realistic, no punches-pulled story about how low humans can fall, look no further; Shinzo Katayama has shot the perfect sample.