Third Windows Films are a firm favourite here at The Geek Show, partly because they let us review all their releases, but mostly due to them releasing a healthy mix of classics and new titles from Asian cinema. They are the last and best men (and women) left standing, after Hong Kong Legends and Tartan fell by the wayside. With that, UK fans of Asian cinema are exposed to films from all manner of new talent that just wouldn’t see light of day otherwise. Which brings us to their latest release in Ryohei Watanabe’s directorial début, Shady, which the then 24-year-old made for $10,000.
Watanabe’s debut concerns two teenage girls and their friendship. The first friend is Misa, a stocky girl who is viciously dubbed Pooh at school, due to her surname “Kumada” (bear + rice paddy) and masculine frame. The other friend is Izumi, who says she can’t make and keep friends because all the other girls are jealous of her looks. Together, the two become best of friends owed to them both being firm outsiders. Their blossoming friendship starts off as endearing (cute, if one where to characterize Izumi’s idiosyncrasies) and as the two spend more and more time together the sheen of the relationship starts peeling away. When the darkness and violence eventually bleed into the mix, that authenticity turns what could just be another tale of teenage friendship gone awry into a genuinely disturbing thriller.
Above any story development, that which really needs to be credited is just how brilliantly Watanabe has observed the lives of teenage girls. It’s almost as if he plucked his younger sisters out of reality and dropped them in his film. In the early exchanges, the long-standing tradition in Japanese cinema of Character as story is a joy to watch. Not because of pace or any bombast, no, it’s much more grounded than that. Merely seeing someone as meek as Misa come out of their shell will resonant with those who were socially shunned at school. It beautifully and simply shows what good a friend can do.
Which is where the main players enter, Izumi Okamura (Izumi) and Mimpi*β (Misa) who become their roles with supreme straightforwardness. This works because of the naturalism: the colour palette is drained like the title suggests and any big camera movement is minimal. It all borrows a documentary like intimacy, after all this is a film about friendship and there are few things closer and more personal than that.
There was a Korean film from 2011 (that Third Window are also releasing later this year) that championed a similar naturalistic philosophy only that focused on teenage boys. Both see teenage relationships go awry and both are outstanding examples of the young talent working in Asia. With Bleak Night and with Shady you have a close to flawless true-to-life account of the Teenage years.
With some of the bigger ideas and the onset of violence, it’s apparent that the directors reach extended his grasp. Now that ambition is admirable and it’s going to mark him out as a talent for the future, especially with his understanding of people. However, when blood starts gushing it suffers from the same problem that all medium to small ranged Japanese films have – believability. The medium budget films have CG blood, the small have the same type of practical blood that was commonplace in slasher’s and pre-1980’s cinema, in that it looks like red paint. The naturalism and the lack of believability are at odds with each other; not to the extent where they derail one another but it is an all too noticeable and distracting byproduct of the low budget.
That’s as far-reaching as any problems go; Ryohei Watanabe’s Shady is the work of a seriously talented emerging filmmaker. Even though this isn’t as fashionable as the works coming from some other Japanese film-makers, if he keeps up this strength of conviction it won’t be long before Watanabe is being compared to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s and Jia Zhang-Ke’s of the world. Kudos to Third Window films for plucking such a star out of obscurity.
Original Title: かしこい狗は、吠えずに笑う
Year of Production: 2012
Running Time: 94 mins
Original Language: Japanese
DVD Release Date: March 24th, 2014
DVD Specifications: 5.1 Surround Sound, Anamorphic Widescreen with removable English subtitles
DVD Bonus Features: Interviews with director and cast