Vital (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Japan, 2004)

A young man named Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) loses his memory in a car crash which also kills his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto). After recovery he enrols at medical school only to discover that the female body he’s dissecting in the mortuary is… well, you can probably guess. As Hiroshi digs into Ryoko’s corpse his memories begin to return and he finds himself forced to come to terms with both his love for Ryoko and his pain over her loss.

Despite the schlock premise this is a poignant, affecting drama about grief and memory, love and loss, and very well played by its star Tadanobu Asano (who with his long hair kept reminding me of a young Ian Gillan). Asano gives a movingly underplayed performance as the amnesiac student whose buried memories are slowly triggered by his investigation into Ryoko’s corpse. Although its director’s pedigree (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) and the unsettling tone of Vital might lead one to expect gross out body horror the autopsy scenes are done with unexpected restraint and the film’s flashbacks and beguiling post-death dream meetings between Hiroshi and Ryoko potently evoke the emotions – the protectiveness between lovers – that come with knowing such interludes can’t last and the recognition that one must eventually bade farewell to the dead. Hiroshi’s emotional journey from grief to acceptance is reflected in a lighting scheme that starts off lurid and sickly before gradually giving way to something much more naturalistic. It’s a stylish looking film but it’s style in the service of substance. If I was reminded of anything while watching this it was less Cronenbergian body horror than it was one of Nic Roeg’s fractured time/space examinations of doomed relationships. Yeah, I liked Vital a lot.