A Stranger of Mine (Kenji Uchida, Japan, 2005)

Office worker Miyata (Yasuhi Nakamura) and newly homeless Maki (Reika Kirishima), two innocents bruised by past love affairs, are accidentally brought together in a restaurant and may have found in each other the perfect partner. But whether they can actually make a go of it depends on the next few hours involving Miyata’s manipulative former girlfriend Ayumi (Yuka Itaya), a private detective and former schoolmate of Miyata’s who’s been doing some checking into Ayumi’s past named Kando (So Yamanaka) and Yakuza mobster Asai (Kisuke Yamashita) who would quite like the cash stolen from his safe returned to him along with the thief who did it – a certain Ayumi.

Amusing and smartly plotted romantic comedy-drama reliant on one of those chain-of-coincidence structures that keeps flashing back to a series of pivotal events seen from different perspectives and which for once plays as neither overly contrived nor gimmicky. Writer/director Uchida uses the missing cash as a sort of ethical testing ground for his characters whilst evincing a sharp and not unsympathetic eye for the contrast between a character’s public image and their private one. The flashbacks adopt the ‘One Chapter/One Character’ structure familiar from Tarantino films and are often uproariously funny. They’re matched by the dexterity with which the film switches effortlessly between a sweet indie-style romance (Kirishima as the jilted fiancee is downright heartbreaking in the film’s early scenes) to a detective story and then a gangster number. Finally coming full circle as Maki discovers the cash (Uchida at his most playful here, going for a downbeat ending before winningly rewinding the closing credits to give us the happy ending we all want, although even here inserting an uproarious gag set up in the film’s opening sequence that’s a direct homage to Wilder’s The Apartment,  this a delight from start to finish. Incidentally, Uchida would revisit this idea of a string of coincidences propelling strangers into each others lives at greater length and with added star power in 2012’s Key Of Life. I highly recommend both movies.

Key of Life (Kenji Uchida, Japan, 2012)

A struggling actor named Takeshi (Masato Sakai) opportunistically swaps identities with a feared underworld assassin named Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) after a bizarre accident in a bath house leaves the latter with amnesia. Meanwhile Kanae (Ryôko Hirosue), a tightly wound and emotionally repressed businesswoman decides it’s time she got married and unexpectedly finds herself falling for amnesiac killer Kondo after she bumps into him outside of the hospital. As Kanae and Kondo begin to fall in love, Takeshi is busy enjoying Kondo’s luxury car and flat. But when Kondo’s former employer requests a further hit job Takeshi begins to discover just how out of his depth he really is. Just as it seems Takeshi is destined to be exposed as a fraud and Kanae and Kondo to be happily married the real assassin regains his memory…

With this, his third film, director Uchida might be in danger of becoming a one trick pony, but when the trick is as entertaining as this I’m not sure it really matters. Deeper, thematically richer and more ambitious than 2005’s not dissimilar A Stranger of Mine, this is a rollicking comedy-drama in which a series of coincidences bring a group of complete strangers into each others orbit and it boasts three superb performances from its principals. The standout for me being Teruyuki Kagawa’s alternately scary and touching turn as Kondo, a sort of Japanese Keyser Soze whose mere name evokes fear and trembling within the underworld but whose post-amnesiac existence proves unexpectedly moving. But nothing in Uchida’s world is quite what it seems and so it proves here as character, story and tone (the moment when Kondo remembers his real identity is brilliantly staged with the simple expedient of a shadow on a wall) are gleefully juggled by its talented writer/director. At 128 mins one could argue this runs a bit long but looking back I can’t think of a single scene I’d want to lose. Uchida clearly loves his characters and wants to do fair by them and the thematic point he’s going for – that love and success only come when you follow your instincts – are as heartfelt and sincere as they are hilarious (and as with A Stranger of Mine there’s a post-credits scene here that is an absolute hoot). Key of Life never goes for the cheap gag or pratfall. Its humour stems entirely from the absurdist situations its characters are put into and Uchida is better than any other contemporary writer I can think of at hiding the contrivances necessary to make the plot work so that it all seems to stem quite naturally from the characters themselves. This really is first class stuff and if you can find it I highly recommend it (as indeed I do A Stranger of Mine).