Review: Asako I & II is an elliptical film that lets us grapple with moral questions

Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's follow-up to Happy Hour captures the rhythms of everyday life in absorbing detail


ASAKO I & II (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi). 119 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (May 31) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. See listing. Rating: NNNN


Have you ever dated someone because they resembled a former flame? That’s the premise of director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s follow-up to Happy Hour, his much-loved, five-hour meditation on divorce and 30-something friendship. Adapted from Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel, Asako I & II is about college student Asako (Erika Karata) in Osaka who meets the wild, boy band-esque Baku (Masahiro Higashide) at an art show and begins an affair that’s so intense, not even a motorbike accident can stop them from locking lips. Then one day, he ghosts her.

The story flashes forward to Tokyo where Asako is now working in a coffee shop and meets Ryohei (also Higashide), an executive who is Baku’s more conservative doppelgänger. He is unwaveringly devoted and they settle into a relationship, but her unrequited love for Baku hangs over the lives.

Elliptical and more conventional in scope, this film is like a younger version of Happy Hour: a character’s sudden departure forces the protagonist to examine her values and assumptions. Hamaguchi’s unassuming style uses shifting light, cityscapes and landscapes in ways that both heighten emotion and capture the rhythms of everyday life in absorbing detail.

Kanata’s subtle performance seems intentionally flat, but it essentially puts all the onus on the audience to grapple with the moral questions raised by the story. In what feels like a winking moment, Ryohei points out that Asako’s shyness forces her roommate Maya (Rio Yamashita) to do “all the emotional labour.” The central conceit might require suspension of disbelief, but the existential crisis it rips open does not.

@KevinRitchie

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