Takeshi Kushida’s debut is a heartbreakingly dark love story about confidence and perception.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
Kai (Hideki Nagai) makes no mark on the world, except for the marks he makes — or rather, removes — from others. A silent, quiet man with implicit discomfort around women, he spends his days in his father’s photography studio, meticulously retouching photos of his clients until they reach the antiseptic, clean-cut beauty of their own self-perception. But he’s disrupted in that routine by the arrival of Kyoko (Hsuki Otaki), a beautiful young social media influencer whom he finds injured in the woods. And as Takeshi Kushida‘s Woman of the Photographs tracks the ways these two change and influence each other, a curious dance around identity, depencency, and the projection of the self starts to form.
At first blush, the plot synopsis sounds like your typical “manic pixie dream girl fixes broken man” story, filtered through the idiosyncrasies of modern Japanese culture. When Kai finds Kyoko after she’s literally fallen out of a tree, he offers to drive her to the hospital (she’s got a gaping wound along her collarbone). But instead, she insists on taking care of it herself, then roping him into dinner with her, then staying at her place. Before long, she’s an omnipresent figure in her life, recruiting him to brush out the horrific wound on her otherwise-beautiful Instagram posts she needs to maintain her brand.
But Woman of the Photographs is wilier than that — it’s In the Mood for Love filtered through reams of social anxiety and Instagram FOMO, a lament that we can’t be the selves we so meticulously project to others. Outside of Kyoko’s own struggles with her self-image (as evidenced by her conflicting desires to hide and embrace a gaping, bloody wound she refuses to let heal), we also see a woman who plans to get cosmetic surgery to change herself to fit the Photoshopped picture Kai made for her, and a funeral director who tasks Kai with creating perfected images of the deceased for memorials. Between all of these characters, and Kai (by contrast, a man content to sit on the sidelines, saying and doing nothing), Kushida is working out some strong feelings about the disconnect between who we are and who we’d like to be.
At no point does Woman of the Photographs threaten to be subtle: it wears its heart and concerns on its billowy, effortlessly-polished sleeve. It’s an unorthodox love story — the tale of two broken people who learn to accept and love each other’s bizarre foibles. Kai owns a praying mantis, the kind of creature who dies after taking a mate; Kyoko opines on the selves we craft for social media with lines like “You have to be someone they want you to be.” But this lack of subtlety works in Kushida’s favor, and feels innately deliberate: these moves read as boldly poetic rather than thunderingly obvious.
Much of that has to do with Photograph‘s dizzying, idiosyncratic presentation, which exists somewhere between the stateliness of Yasujiro Ozu and the grim camp of Nobuhiko Obayashi. The sound design is deliberately ostentatious and unsettling; simple footfalls crunch like thunder, the munching of Kai’s mantis eating rings through your ears. It’s a world of sensory overload and confusing imagery; no wonder Kai wants to retreat from the world.
And yet, as Kushida brings us further into the volcanic romance between Kai and Kyoko, Woman of the Photographs begins to feel a lot more like In the Realm of the Senses, that film’s explicit eroticism replaced with unsettlingly formal fantasy sequences and the dark liberation of watching two messed-up people sink into the warmth of codependency. It’s texturally rich and darkly romantic, and like the lonely photographer at its center, says a lot with a little.