Even though the name Suo Masayuki may not be immediately recognizable, you have probably seen or at least heard of the director's two best films: Sumo Do, Sumo Don't (1992) and the original Japanese version of Shall We Dance? (1996). Both films won the Best Film and Best Director Awards at the Japanese Academy Awards and are considered modern Japanese classics. Suo's latest film, A Terminal Trust, is a really good film that sadly just falls short of being his new classic.
A Terminal Trust tells the story of Mr Egi, a man with severe asthma who is suffering from frequent episodes of life-threatening exacerbations, and his relationship with the treating doctor, Dr Orii. The great Yakusho Kôji and Kusakari Tamiyo, both previously seen in Shall We Dance?, play Mr Egi and Dr Orii respectively. Their performances are stellar and the best scenes of the film are those showing the pair together. Unfortunately, the film is structured so that Yakusho does not appear in the last hour of the film, which focuses on a prosecutor's (Osawa Takao) interrogation over the part Dr Orii played in Mr Egi's death. This latter part is too slow and drawn out and certainly is not as strong as the film's first 90 minutes, which has prevented A Terminal Trust from being a great film.
The film's portrayal of a dying man is insightful, with his desire to revisit childhood memories, concerns about close family members and contemplation of death all being very realistic. End-of-life issues (including euthanasia) are explored in some depth and from different points of view, including those of the doctor, the patient, his/her family and the legal system. Most of the film takes place within a hospital, and with very few exceptions (such as when a nurse declares the 61-year old patient's blood pressure of 79/48 (which is very low in reality) being normal), the medical scenes generally carry a high degree of accuracy and show that a lot of care has been taken in creating them. One particularly unforgettable scene is the one showing Mr Egi's death, which is so real and violent that it is frightening.
Director Suo seems to have a lot to say about today's Japanese society. The portrayal of the prosecutor as a cold-blooded executioner and the unjust manner with which he conducts the interrogation direct criticisms towards the justice system in Japan (which he also did with his previous film I Just Didn't Do It). Factories with ducts emitting smoke are shown in a number of scenes, perhaps suggesting pollution is the culprit responsible for Mr Egi's deteriorating health. There is also a message, for the younger generation, that one should cherish the people around them, as beautifully illustrated by the heart-wrenching scene where Mr Egi's children say to their father parting words that are filled with regrets and apologies.
A Terminal Trust is a thought-provoking film that will please viewers who like serious dramas. Its pacing is a bit slow in some parts but overall it is a beautiful film with deep meanings and some of the best performances in a Japanese film this year.
The Japanese Film Festival will be opening in Melbourne, Australia, on November 29. You can check their website for details.
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