[This review initially appeared when the film screened at Germany's
Nippon Connection and with the film appearing this weekend at the Shinsedai
Festival in Toronto we present it again now..]
"Our Brief Eternity" is one of those rare delights: a film that could be called science fiction, but eschews the all-too familiar mold and restrictions of genre movies. One indication of its independent spirit is its one-of-a-kind protagonist: Teru (played with great charisma by Kouta Kusano), an unemployed slacker clad in a tattered poncho who ponders philosophical matters like death and time as he wanders aimlessly around Tokyo and drinks. Through his voiceover narration, he explains that he is fed up with all the mundane things in the world, and his disillusionment and detachment remain a constant attribute of his character throughout the film. Odd occurrences begin to happen around him - specifically, people are fainting without any warning. They wake up again before too long, and appear relatively unaffected from that point onwards. However, the fainting spells are the result of a strange disease that affects memory, in such a way that, once the victims wake up, they will have forgotten someone very close to them outside of their family. This information is relayed to Teru by Kitsune, a mysterious, black-clad man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Choi Min-Sik and claims to be an expert of-sorts on the virus, which he calls Emanon. Some may complain that his appearance before Teru is a little overly convenient, but it works well enough as a necessary expository scene - especially due to the uniquely odd Kitsune, who reappears throughout the film. Soon after learning about the virus, Teru sees a stranger collapse in the street - and at the same time, sees Mio (Romi), an old flame of his. He tries to talk to her, but she doesn't recognize him - she, of course, had caught the disease, and had Teru erased from her memory. Teru then uses this opportunity to try and reconnect with Mio, despite the fact that she is with someone else.
Director Takuya Fukushima uses a rough, handheld aesthetic for his film, keeping the main focus on his characters and their interactions with each other. Such scenes have a nice in-the-moment vibe about them - particularly the scenes with Teru and his circle of friends in their favorite drinking hole and, of course, with him and Mio as they steadily reconnect. This casual, intimate style is another indicator that this isn't an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-type sci-fi flick, as one might assume from the plot description. The virus premise mainly exists as a way for Fukushima and co-writer Hisato Sakoda to explore ideas about memory, love and the bonds between people and those they care about - think of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but without the trippy Michel Gondry imagery. The film's themes are most effectively illustrated by the romance that re-sparks between Teru and Mio. Actors Kusano and Romi have great chemistry together, and the moments they share feel authentic. Mio is a particularly interesting character, and as she reveals her more negative traits - recklessness, impulsiveness, self-loathing and occasional cruelty, such as when she flippantly dumps her boyfriend - one can see not only the lust that originally drew Teru to her, but also the possible reasons for why they broke up.
The progress of the virus and its effects on both Japan and the rest of the world are tracked throughout the film through onscreen text, reminding viewers of the larger-scale crisis that is occurring around Teru and Mio. As the film unfolds, Teru also receives mysterious phone calls from an anonymous caller who picked his number at random and amusingly continues to call him at unexpected moments. The more serious consequences of the memory loss cases emerge in the second half of the film - namely, the emotional malaise that occurs as "collateral damage." Mio's discarded boyfriend is one such casualty, hurling himself into depression. The final moments of the film are dreamy and disorienting, shifting into a familiar post-apocalyptic tone while still retaining the focus on Teru, Mio and the other main characters - particularly in a moving montage that focuses on each of them at a specific moment. The film is carried along nicely by an excellent, often ambient soundtrack, most of which provided by the band Kursant. There are some loose ends in the narrative that could have benefited from a little more resolution (specifically, the storyline of Kitsune and his wife and a potential date rape scenario that comes out of nowhere and is extinguished almost as quickly), but fortunately don't distract too much from the main flow of the film.
"Our Brief Eternity" is an insightful and sensibly-made exploration of human relationships from an unlikely angle. Following his 2001 debut feature "Prism," it is a strong accomplishment for Takuya Fukushima, and will hopefully lead to more recognition for this greatly talented emerging filmmaker.Review by Marc Saint-Cyr