Even though the most of commercial success of Japanese cinema is reserved for other kinds of stories that have a significant fan base in other types of media (best-selling literature, manga comics), there is a certain surge in socially aware original cinematic ones in the last years. Last year’s Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Koreeda and the winning film “Shoplifters” could serve as an easy example, but it is not the only one. “Five Million Dollar Life”, directed by the Korean-Japanese first-timer Moon Sung-ho must also be taken into an account. The film premiered recently at Shanghai International Film Festival before departing on a festival tour and hitting the theatres nationally in July. We were lucky enough to catch it at its North American premiere at New York Asian Film Festival.

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The film starts with a bold, while not exactly confirmed, calculation that an average Japanese earns about the same amount of money that they will spend in their lifetime for covering the basic costs of life and the number is somewhere in the region of 200 million yen, or 2 million dollars. Let us say it is the figure how much someone’s life is worth. Of course, there are exceptions from that basic rule and one of them is Mirai (the young Ayumu Mochizuki who has a potential of making a brilliant acting career in near future) who was born with a congenial heart disease because of which he had to have a transplant surgery that costed 5 million dollars and that made him a minor TV star of sorts.

He is sick and tired of his life like that, but on the other hand, he considers himself to be in debt to his mother who raised the funds and the society which provided them. So, naturally, he decides to enrol to a medical school and become a doctor in order to save lives, but he feels he is not actually cut out for that kind of mission. After a series of bullying text messages from a person signed as Kiyomaru, he decides to embark on a journey to earn enough money to repay his debt so he could kill himself in peace. Since the day labour odd jobs at the construction sites don’t pay well enough, he gets entangled in activities that are questionable or even downright illegal, while actually remaining naive and kind in the process.

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Mirai’s mellowness and good heart, complete with the lack of common stupidity, are crucial to the script penned by TV writer Naomi Hiruta. The firm vision of the character transfers into relatively believable mechanics of his survival, through exchanging kindness with strangers he encounters. It provides a perfect alibi for a string of pretty unorthodox events that are about to happen as soon as Mirai starts his self-searching journey. They are not necessarily pleasant, on the contrary, they might be very dark, but due to Mirai’s character, the tone remains bright and breezy for the most of the time.

However, in the background, the topics of “human capital”, bullying, teenage suicides, broken families, class differences, underage prostitution, organized crime and even the echoes of Fukushima disaster are being touched and explored. However, there are other problems with the script mechanics itself, like the supporting characters being under-developed, the mystery of Kiyomaru’s identity being solved too abruptly and in too neat fashion and the ending that makes little sense, but they are actually minor issues that come with the territory.

Nevertheless, “Five Million Dollar Life” is easy to follow, never boring and easy to relate to due to Moon’s sense of directing which is secure. Genre-mixing between coming to age and social issues drama, together with a pinch of mystery and a road movie (albeit not covering a great distance) is smooth and the realistic look due to Shigeru Tajima’s mostly hand-held camerawork and the choice of the natural palette of colours suits the film well, while the occasional jump cuts are saved for crucial scenes, doing wonders breaking rhythm and providing dynamic accents. Moon’s work with his principal actor Ayumu Mochizuki is also spot on and Mochizuki’s interpretation of Mirai feels both studied and natural.

“Five Million Dollar Life” is a promising debut for its director, scriptwriter and main actor and it is more than a showcase of talent. It is simply a good, hearty and warm film that is well worth seeing.

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