I have long given up on building expectations around Japanese movies but I was still surprised by Non-Ko. Opening scene. A woman sits at a bar drinking whiskey from a glass filled with an impressive amount of ice (think –berg). She downs the drink and asks for a refill. She’s been there a while and is waxing lyrical in a way that only drunk people can. She finishes up by stating she has no money to pay for it all and the scene cuts to just her and the bar woman. It is a moment of realisation and we get a lot of those. Nothing is quite as expected. Not in a Ponyo magical way, but just in a ‘reserve judgement’ until the end kind of manner.
Non-Ko is the stage name of the main actress and she is sullen, withdrawn, miserable and has very loud clip-clopping sandals. Not sure what the exaggerated sound added to the story but there it was, ice against glass, sandals against pavement, chewing and eating all magnified to take over most of the sound. Non-ko is back home after an alluded to tv career failure and is living with her parents at 37 years of age. Drunken cycle rides crashing into bins and street lamps on the way home from the bar seem to be a staple in this new life.
At a local temple near her home, Non-Ko is examining other people’s fortunes (dismissing the good ones) when she is tasked to help a young man, Masuma, who wants to set up a stand for a big fete. After discovering he has no plans, apart from relying on hope, she sullenly takes him along and he ends up staying with her and her parents after drunkenly passing out in a bar. The interactions between Masuma and Non-Ko explore different levels of hopelessness and crawling out of the low points of life but without really blending too much. There is a distinctness to the characters that is retained quite well. The father is authoritative; the mother silent, domestic and supportive; the ex-husband sleazy and Non-Ko sullen and miserable. The movie entertains in its own intriguing way and the scenes of Japanese life slip in quite gently without appearing as a tourist expedition.
I found some of the cultural differences interesting and a little brow-wrinkling, such as the near-constant smoking and sitting on the floor. There was the rolled out futon for sleep, the gardens and the temple with the chosen fortunes tied to near-by tree branches. The action in the movie was quite fascinating with some dramatic events taking place at the fete when Masuma’s hope finally runs out.
The film offers some moments of reality with little of the glamour of glossy productions but at the same time it does it well. I finally got to like Non-Ko by the end when she realises that running away isn’t the answer. The theme of the film festival is Girls on Film and this work navigated the jarring world of disappointment and expectations in a dramatic little fashion but not too far from its initial premise. I wouldn’t call it charming but it was a satisfying experience.
Girls on Film is a festival running at the Arnolfini until the 21 March.