It was more than eight years ago that the virtually unknown Ryusuke Hamaguchi premiered Happy Hour, a five-hour narrative masterclass about four thirty-something women coming to terms with their own lives and relationship to one another. Against all odds, Hamaguchi has since become one of the biggest names in world cinema. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to see him emerge as the preeminent influence on a fellow Japanese filmmaker––so appears to be the case with Toshihiko Tanaka’s Rei, the winner of the Tiger Competition at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Rei is a three-hour-plus, Tokyo-Hokkaido-set drama about Hikari, a thirty-something woman with a steady but unexciting job, an avid playgoing habit, and a concern that her life is a bit unexciting. She meets a favorite actor after attending a play with her friend, the mother of a nonverbal disabled child with a workaholic husband who rarely gets to go out. In most films it would play as a meet-cute, but Tanaka uses it to send his heroine pining for a deaf landscape photographer named Masato (played by Tanaka himself) who lives up north. Already, though, the dramaturgy stands out––the apparent narrative device precedes the lengthy conversation the two share, and whether this is set-up or just a chance to look into the lives of our central protagonist, it demonstrates Tanaka’s talent.

In this brief description alone, the echoes of Happy Hour and Drive My Car are plain for all to see. But Tanaka’s storytelling is strong enough to make it worth overlooking the similarities. There are three tales here, really, with Hikari tying them together––she and her search for a life a bit more worthy of the art that so consumes her; Masato and his complicated relationship to society; and the aforementioned mother––and the film does an admirable job relating them in-tandem, unafraid to leave characters for long stretches of a time or circle back to those who would have been forgotten in a film whose writing was less vivid and sharp than this.

Tanaka is a first-time director who moved from the theater to cinema during COVID (Hikari’s conversation with the actor seems to echo the director’s own concerns), and he is working with students, nonprofessionals, and theater actors; he also edited and produced himself. Rei is quite an ambitious production for such a group, and it sometimes sinks a bit under that weight. The film has more than its fair share of clunky insert shots, while Tanaka sometimes seems unsure of where to place the camera or why it belongs where it does. Other times, he’ll interrupt a scene with shots happening elsewhere to relay exposition in a way that, while economical, is forced. Most jarring is the insistence on the title, named after a kanji that has no meaning on its own but derives some from its proximity to other characters––besides getting the definition to start the film, we get chapter markers that insist on referring to its central characters as “a pair of rei,” just in case the audience isn’t sure that they find meaning in one another. But it’s worth remembering that Tanaka, unlike Hamaguchi, didn’t go to film school and is making his introduction to the west (and the world) on a true debut rather than after several works and sketches with varying degrees of sophistication. If these issues drag down Rei, they do little to shunt the promise of its director.

Rei’s primary pleasure is the character drama, and to reveal much more would rob viewers of that. On the other hand, the thematic material sometimes piles up in quantity rather than being explored in-depth; I found myself pining for a richer exploration of Hikari’s relationship to art and artists, or for the (almost tokenized) photographer’s interior world, than for the broader humanist messages on display. No doubt Tanaka, coming from the world of theater, is interested in thematizing nonverbal communication through at least two characters, yet his dialogue––especially in the later stages––sometimes becomes a vehicle for keeping the story moving. Happy Hour fans might find themselves pining for a long dinner or workshop in which we benefit mostly from spending time with the characters. 

Still, a number of scenes work wonders: the actors sell the big emotional beats, and nobody could accuse Tanaka of being unclear in a quieter sequence or failing to undersell the film’s numerous shifts in tone. A handful of impressive exterior shots betray the same attention to locale that Tanaka’s landscape photographer displays, and in general Rei deftly handles changes between its two primary settings. A work so considered and deliberate, with this kind of attention to the setting and architecture of a space, is not merely a writer’s film. Still, as a prize-winner, it is perhaps more noteworthy for its promise than its accomplishment.

Rei premiered at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Grade: B

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