Reviewing a film directed by someone you already like is one of the most difficult experiences a critic can have, almost as difficult as it is for a director to follow a great debut. In the case of “Kontora”, Anshul Chauhan’s second feature film after the great “Bad Poetry Tokyo“, both the aforementioned apply.
High school girl Sora is living with her father and grandfather in a small rural town. Her relationship with her father is almost non-existent, since the two of them barely communicate, and the girl seems to have a better connection with her grandfather. When he dies, however, things take a rather unexpected turn, since Sora discovers the diary he kept during WWII, which, apart from a number of sketches and his thoughts during the particular, extreme circumstances, includes hints about a treasure buried somewhere in the nearby forest. Soon, the girl starts looking for it obsessively, while a rather strange homeless man who seems to be mute and only walks backwards, arrives in the town. At the same time, her father has to face the attitude of a relative and “friend”, who owns the local factory and does not waste any time after grandpa’s death, to ask him to sell his house to him, during a family dinner in his house. His advances end up in a drunken, heated dialogue and Sora’s father leaving the house completely drunk. While driving, he hits the mute accidentally, and despite his will to leave, ends up bringing him home, after Sora’s intense protests. Gradually, his relationship with his daughter starts to change.
As the film ended, I was filled with questions. Why does the man walk backwards, and in essence, who is he? What is the purpose of the other family in the story, apart from bringing the father in a situation to hit the homeless man? What are the reasons for anyone acting the way they do in the film? After a closer look (and a talk with the director), I understood a bit more, and the final notes shed some light to the purpose of the story, but the fact remains that this is a very personal film. So personal in fact, that someone has either to have memories or knowledge from the aspect of the war the film refers to (the Japanese student soldiers of WW2) or to have experienced the exact events that take place in the movie.
The concept of family and particularly how dysfunctional some can be seems to be one of the central ones, as we watch both father and daughter searching for a purpose in their life to fill the void the lack of connection has left them. However, even that comment gets somewhat lost in the many different subplots of the narrative, while the duration of the film, which goes beyond 140 minutes, eventually ends up dulling the impact of the comments even more. Lastly, the use of music may add to the eeriness and the sadness that permeates the narrative, but I felt that its use was hyperbolic, and some scenes could do better without any at all.
On the other hand, visually the film is quite impressive. The concept of the man walking backwards looks great and really draws the viewer to the character and his reasons and Max Golomidov has done a great job capturing this weird but very engaging concept. The black-and-white cinematography fits the aesthetics of the narrative perfectly and adds to the overall melancholy and nostalgia that permeates the film. Furthermore, Golomidov has captured the bucolic setting of the area quite artfully, in essence making the location one of the protagonists of the film.
Wan Marui as Sora and Taichi Yamada as her father are convincing in their parts, but their effort also stumbles upon the issues of the narrative. Hidemasa Mase, who is also the creator of the impressive sketches that feature in the film, is a real tour-de-force for the movie as the backwards-walking man, with his silent tension feeling with sentiment every scene he appears.
“Kontora” is not a film without merits and Chauhan again has some very interesting ideas, while the visual “packaging” of the film is definitely engaging. However, there is such a thing as “too personal” and this is a trap “Kontora” definitely falls into.