Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Freesia - Icy Tears (2007)

Near future, alternative history Japan is an unpleasant place. While we never learn any historical details, it is quite clear that the country is dominated by militarism and nationalism, waging a perpetual war somewhere in South-East Asia and driven by casual violence.

The cultural difference that interests Freesia, and therefore us, is the establishment of official vengeance killings, savage murder hidden behind the coziness of bureaucratic process - which also seems to take the place of courts and what we understand under the rule of law - and supposedly fair rules.

There are agencies with professional contract killers hunting down the designated victims in a relatively controlled time and place, while their counterparts are allowed to defend their own lives, but can also hire professional bodyguards. If they can't afford one, there's always the option of getting a national bodyguard, but those aren't too successful.

The ex-soldier Kanou (Tetsuji Tamayama) has just started out in one of the agencies. He's a little bit on the traumatized side since he witnessed a military experiment to test a freezing bomb on twenty war orphans. He was one of the soldiers who lead the children to the testing ground, but his conscience brought him too close to the detonation and left him psychically numb and unable to feel physical pain - frozen inside and out.

What Kanou doesn't understand until deep into the movie is that his boss Higuchi (Tsugumi) is the other survivor of the experiment, as damaged inside as he is. Unlike Kanou, Higuchi wants revenge on the people she deems responsible for her and Kanou's state, and if she needs to fake some paperwork for it and doom herself to death by it, so be it.

Taking revenge is not too easy, though, when the people you want to kill are either by now so senile and physically decrepit that there isn't much of a person to take revenge on there anymore or so shaken by guilt that they have the same psychological symptoms as the would-be avenger.

Freesia is director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's live action adaptation of a manga written by Jiro Matsumoto, but it changes many of the manga's concepts and characters deeply. Even deeper is the difference in tone - where Matsumoto's manga is sleazy and bizarre with a large helping of the outrageous, the film concentrates its interest purely on one thematic element, trauma. Even the alternative history is just a backdrop here.

I have half a mind of criticizing Freesia for being too monochrome, however, its muted emotional palette is the point of the whole endeavor. Still, one can't help to feel at least a certain inner numbness oneself when watching a film only featuring characters with muted affects, doing some muted feeling violence in pictures with a muted colour palette.  My mind's other half does of course wish to applaud the movie for really impressing its characters' emotional state on the viewer.

A large part of the film's success in doing this is based on Kumakiri's note perfect direction, characterized by elegance and the courage to be slow and difficult instead of overplaying the plot's inherent melodrama for cheap effect. However, Tamayama, Tsugumi and Hidetoshi Nishijima as their object of vengeance are doing fine work here, too, showing again that underplaying can be a very effective acting method.

I have no doubt that the film could have gone in a very different direction in the hands of a different director. The screenplay isn't exactly subtle, with elements like a freezing bomb leaving people frozen inside and all the usual tropes of vengeance plots. Somehow, Kumakiri treats everything as subtle as possible, although the film's ending still wants us to feel a closure its characters don't truly achieve.

But I never expect a film to be perfect, so I'm perfectly alright with that.


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