'Asako I & II' Review: Rom-com Vertigo

Asako I & II marks the return of Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi after the critical success of his last film Happy Hour. It premiered in competition at Cannes 2018 only to be overshadowed by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palmes d’Or winning Shoplifters. Now that we are well clear of the Shoplifters hype and Asako I & II is seeing a limited release in the U.S., it seems like a great moment to take a deeper look into this beguiling work. The film which is Hamaguchi’s first foray into both commercial and genre film, doesn’t always succeed at surmounting those limitations but the incisively creative approach and poignant romantic explorations make it an entry worth your time.

Asako I & II is based on a novel by author Tomoka Shibasaki which tells the story of a young woman Asako (Erika Karata) who falls in love with a young man named Baku (Masahiro Higashide). Years after Baku’s mysterious disappearance Asako falls in love with different man, Ryôhei (also Masahiro Higashide), who looks exactly like her past love. Themes of doppelgangers have always cropped up create odd mirrors to our world often in nightmarish ways. These have been staples of literature and film from Dostoevsky’s The Double all the way to Jordan Peele’s Us. Much like the shadows that inspired the original myths, there’s something unshakable to this idea.

The romantic substrain of these stories has its most iconic film form in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and some of the best modern riffs on this exist in the filmography of Wong Kar-wai. Meanwhile, two interesting yet wildly different contemporary examples include Hong Song-soo’s Yourself and Yours, and Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love. Often within these works, the past and present collide forcing the viewer to interrogate the way in which we project past relationships, or ourselves onto others.

What makes Asako I & II stand out is that it employs this form within the lighter bounds of the romantic comedy genre. Even Hong Sang-soo’s most humorous diversions never quite fit the mold of the rom-com genre to the extent we see here. Hamaguchi sets a breezy tone full of the immediately recognizable hallmarks like goofy best friends, serendipitous meetings, and love at first sight. In fact, the film leans so heavy into some of these playful tropes that at times it can become off-putting. Thankfully, whenever any of these elements become truly grating the film swerves taking unexpected turns that subvert the genre.

A particularly striking example of this occurs when Ryôhei attends a play in hopes of seeing Asako. By this point in the film, we are thoroughly lulled into quiet ease, even though slivers of tension have been foreshadowing some type of breaking point. What follows is a profoundly unsettling sequence that depicts the devastating 2011 Japan earthquake. The sequence is perfectly executed and exists wholly outside of the bounds of the type of genre work within which we have been comfortably stewing. We watch Ryôhei, disoriented walking through the crowds after all trains have been shut down, watching people break down into tears around him and sirens blare through the street. All of a sudden Ryôhei seizes up, the camera holds on his face, followed by the reverse shot, Asako standing still as the wave of people moves past her. The lovers lock eyes and embrace, and we are returned once again into the confines of the world of genre, all is right again, and yet this unease remains with us.

These moments highlight not just Hamaguchi’s talent but a remarkable restraint, a willingness to reign in some of his more adventurous cinematic moves in order to preserve their power for specific moments. A decision to operate largely within the genre while keeping the characters complex and emotionally rich. This type of patience makes sense from a director whose last film has a five-hour runtime. (For the concerned, Asako I & II clocks in at a more traditional 2 hours.) This method creates a beguiling blend of tones that feels unique as it works to pull the genre well outside its comfort zone, while largely playing by the rules.

This is not to say that he always pulls it off, in fact, some of the more dissonant ideas do feel out of place. A particularly distracting example is when we find out Baku’s fate. The absurdity of this reveal comes off as a step too far, and seems better suited for something like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days rather than tethered to the emotional foundations being meticulously constructed here. At times, the film lacks the guile and elusiveness of something like Chungking Express, a film that never lingers within a genre long enough to be pinned down, instead Asako I & II at times overindulges for either a laugh or a little bit of added sweetness. While there are a number of distracting turns like this, some of the underlying ideas and particularly the ending are striking enough to overcome this awkwardness.

Asako is not just torn between Baku and Ryôhei, but the past and the present, and the two versions of herself. In a particularly poignant moment, she comments on the years that have passed, the emotional growth she underwent, the life that she had been building and reflects on how all of it can be erased in a single gesture, all of it can become a dream. This separation between worlds is at once like and unlike the Hollywood archetypes that preceded it. There are numerous Lifetime films that share similar ideas: a woman torn between the hometown boy and her new life in the city. that could be taken just as seriously but for the moralizing which usually explains to the audience why the decision the protagonist makes is the correct one.

Within Asako I and II there really is no answer or solution to be found, no sense of destiny to act as guidance, no truth or comfort. It’s all unclear, murky, and terribly real, and it’s in moments like that when in it dives into this murk that the film shines brightest.

Asako I & II is currently playing in NYC at the Metrograph and in Westchester at the Jacob Burns Film Center

To see the schedule of upcoming screenings near you visit the Grasshopper Film website.

The Ten Best Films of 2020​

With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.