Eiji Uchida has come to be a well-known name in modern Japanese cinema, with films that take a look at the seedier side of modern life. “Love and Other Cults” continues his engaging blend of comedy and drama from his previous film “Lowlife Love” (2015), with an unconventional love story involving two high-school students.

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The film begins with a hilarious sequence of three high-school boys in a public toilet contemplating calling the number on the wall that purports to be a woman offering sex. After dialing the number, the trio are confronted by a prostitute, along with a her pimp, neither being significantly older than the three awkward teens who called the number. After being humiliated by a further group of gang members, who are revealed as the ones running this scam, we are told that the woman’s name is Ai Shima. The voiceover narration then helpfully informs us that this is a love story. We learn that Ai was a member of a cult for seven years, before finally returning to high-school. One of her classmates, Ryota, becomes besotted with her. Their relationship develops atypically, with Ai showing little to no reciprocal affection to Ryota’s attention to her. We watch as their lives take several drastic turns and they begin to drift further apart. There is a great supporting cast of characters of school friends, family, gang members and others who help to make up this colourful and believable world.

Written and directed by Eiji Uchida, this film, like his previous work, covers a number of the more unpleasant elements of society. We see hostess clubs, porn shoots, youth gangs and drug use. The film rarely offers a commentary on these things, they are simply a part of the modern milieu in which young people grow up. There are some great jokes and comedic scenes, such as when Ai is threatened with being buried alive, and the film does a great job, in a touch over ninety minutes, in establishing a large number of main and secondary characters. Chief amongst these is the gang member who falls for an underwater photographer, eventually leaving his friends behind. There are some beautiful scenes of rural Japan, shot largely in the picturesque area surrounding Mount Fuji, that contrast well with the grubby streets of the city.

Sairi Ito gives a transcendent performance as the confused protagonist trying to find her way in life. The role requires a lot of her as Ai goes through significant changes, but Ito manages to rise to the challenge. Again the film does not cast her as good or bad necessarily, but as a nuanced individual who is battling her demons like everyone else. Kenta Suga, who plays Ryoto, is charismatic and likeable in his attempts to form some kind of relationship with the unpredictable Ai. There are many other fantastic performances, including Denden as a typically idiosyncratic Yakuza boss.

If the film is about anything it is about forming connections with other people, trying to battle through the complexity of life to discover a purpose or meaning. Ai’s mother, who is continually becoming involved with new cults or religions, is a perfect example of an individual who is striving to dedicate her life to something, continuing to search for a meaningful cause. As the title suggests, love is also shown to be something that may seem incredibly important, but is in fact transient and difficult to define.

Once again, Eiji Uchida has created a film that will resonate with many people. Superb performances, a tight script, and some memorable scenes make this well worth watching.

“Love and Other Cults” screened at the New York Asian Film Festival

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