A Saké Bomb is a beer cocktail made by pouring Saké into a shot glass and dropping it into a glass of beer, it’s also the feature debut of Junya Sakino that’s making its international premiere at the 2013 Raindance Film Festival. In Sakino’s debut, rising star Gaku Hamada (Naoto) is a motivated worked at a Saké factory in rural Japan, a worker who is unexpectedly promoted to the head of the company. It’s an honour for him, no doubt, but his boss suggests that he takes the week off to do the things he has always wanted to do, while he has the chance. So Naoto heads to America to find out why the love of his life left him, helped by his cousin Sebastian (Eugene Kim) and uncle (Hiroyuki Watanabe), he goes on a road trip across California.
Sakino’s film is billed as a comedy-drama road trip, and that status alone, especially when it’s a Japanese/American co-production, comes with all sorts of baggage. Since the mid to late 1990s, names like the Farrelly brothers have completely subverted the comedy road trip for the worse. Sake-Bomb is much subtler than that, there are no sex scenes in fact there are two scenes which hilariously satirise those expectations. Those scenes are a rarity, as the comedic half of that spread is where the film is at its weakest, and unfortunately anybody with a critical capacity will swiftly call for the films head. The dramatics, conversely, are much more fascinating and appealing.
Even though the film concerns itself with Japan, it’s directed with an American sensibility in mind, particular that of the mumblecore fraternity. A group or sub-genre of film that isn’t particularly well-known for its style or invention, these films (Sake-bomb included) could happily be TV films and nobody would bat an eyelid. While that’s a criticism of the minimalistic production values, it also shines a light on the admirable absence of artifice. Sakino’s film is just two cousins and the friends they meet along the way. There is no big city, no excess; as far as the immediate narrative is concerned, the romanticism of Naoto’s visit to America permeates every pore of the film. This is a romantic film through and through, in its characters and conception.
Romance is also a word that could be used to describe Eugene Kim’s character, Sebastian. Could is the word to stress there, even though he has romantic desires he’s more aggressive in the way he expresses himself. He runs a video blog that does its bit to dispel Asian stereotypes, calling it something that I’m not quite prepared to repeat. Thematically, Sake-Bomb is a film about the Asian identity in America and that all comes to life through Sebastian. In his road trip along California, Sebastian is revealed to be hypocritically racist for someone who is fighting for Asian equality. Through him, the very idea of an Asian community has doubt cast upon it and some really interesting questions are posed. In both textual intent and characterisation, Sebastian is the poison to Naoto’s endearing simplicity. Even with Sebastian being the most unlikable soul (with all his baffling behaviour, racial politics and hypocrisy), Eugene Kim makes it work though his committed performance.
It’s an odd comment to make, but any film that stars Kim’s opposite Gaku Hamada is almost fate bound to be lovely. It’s true of the Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, See you Tomorrow Everyone and Fish Story (to a lesser extent). The reason for this is that he plays the everyman to total perfection. If you were going to use the lazy marketing tactic of comparing a Japanese actor to a western one, with Tadanobu Asano turned into the Japanese Johnny Depp, then Gaku Hamada is the Japanese Martin Freeman. A great performance it is by Hamada too. Any actor who works outside of the comfort zone that is their native tongue demands respect, and Hamada is just as thoughtful and likeable when there’s a language barrier in the way.
The charm and intellect isn’t all down to the young Japanese actor’s presence, which would be putting too strong a plaudits on his shoulders. The story, subtext and relaxed atmosphere all make Sake Bomb into the accomplished debut that it is. When you get the chance, grab Sake-Bomb with both hands as it’s far lovelier than a film about racism has any right being.
RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL SCREENING 1
Saturday 28 September 2:30pm
RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL SCREENING 2
Thursday 3 October 3:45pm
THANK YOU TO THIRD WINDOW FILMS FOR KINDLY PROVIDING A REVIEW COPY OF SAKE BOMB