Venice Report: SAD VACATION Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor

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Another hotly anticipated TIFF title around these parts is Sad Vacation, the latest from personal fave Shinji Aoyama. But the film has bowed in Venice before arriving here in Toronto and as usual Ghibli World's Peter van der Lugt graciously sends back his word.

It’s a great time of year for movie lovers. Now I might very possibly be referring to the (always thoroughly by Twitch reported) Toronto International Film Festival, but that party hasn’t started yet. In this case I am talking about a festival which currently takes place at the other side of the ocean: la Mostra Internationale d’Arte Cinematografica, also known as the Venice Film Festival. During this years edition, the Orrizonti, one of Venice’s sidebar programs illustrating new trends in film making, kicked off with the latest film directed by Aoyama Shinji: Sad Vacation.

Titled after Johnny Thunders farewell song to fellow junkie Sid Vicious, Sad Vacation is a film that expresses the relationship and differences between settled life and moving around. As an underground theme in all of Aoyama’s films “How can human beings can live alone?”, the movie speaks about ones origins and how one gets detached from these. Sad Vacation is obviously close to Aoyama’s heart. Aiming to make a film which also represents his life, Aoyama (also responsible for the story) wanted something different than letting it take place in Tokyo and shot the film in the city he was born and grew up (Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan).

Protagonist Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) earns his money to live his simple life doing strange jobs and being a driver for drunken bar girls and their customers. Being abandoned by his mother at young age and then losing his father to suicide, he’s grown up nursing these emotional wounds. Still, Kenji has enough compassion to care for Achun, a young illegal Chinese immigrant who barely escaped from being sold into slavery, and Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki, once again re-united with Aoyama after her star-making turn in Eureka), the traumatized sister of his old friend in jail. However, his life takes a huge turn one night when he drives home transport company owner Mamiya and recognizes his wife, Chiyoko (Eri Ishida), as his own long lost mother. Mamiya instantly takes to Kenji and increasingly solicits his help in running the company. This provides Kenji with an opportunity to take the revenge that he thinks brings down the closure he’s been yearning for in his personal life, namely settling the score with his mother. Having to face both past and future, where will it ultimately lead them?

Those having seen Aoyama’s previous work will notice the cast is very familiar. A deliberate choice, as Aoyama mentioned at the press conference in which he also said to be very much content with the end result. Lead by actor Tadanobu Asano fulfills the role of Kenji, a familiar character name for him. Having played several “Kenji roles” in the past, Asano wanted to do another one and is hoping to win an award for this Kenji character as well. In 1997 he won the award for Best Actor as Kenji in Aoyama’s Helpless at the Japanese Professional Movie Awards and in 2003 at Venice the Upstream Prize for playing a Kenji in the Thai film Ruang rak noi nid mahasan. As far Sad Vacation is concerned I can’t say if that will be the case, but Asano, as well as the rest of the cast managed to deliver a fine and convincing performance. The result is a quietly powerful drama in which Aoyama manages to address blood ties, fate and regeneration. What exactly defines a mother? Or a parent, for that matter? Also in terms of visuals cinematographer Masaki Tamura is yet again providing images of muted colours but astonishing clarity.

So can we give any further explanation about Sad Vacation? As far as Aoyama is concerned, he has no words that must explain it. “When I try to say something, it all comes out as a “pretty” speech and makes this film seem just like a lie. Of course, a film only explained with words becomes just a lie, but still depending on something magical that can be an explanation of science a film becomes a film. In order to preserve that magical something, at the very least before filming, I have to keep my mouth shut. But I would like to say just this. Sad Vacation will probably be the kind of film that can by no means be summed up with “pretty” speeches.” All that’s left to say: go and see it if you have the chance!

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the other Twitch reviews on Aoyama’s work:
- Eli Eli Lema Sabachthani?
- An Obsession
- Wild Life
- A Forest With No Name
- EM Embalming

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