Pain and guilt are the twin and calm rivers that run under the ambiguous title of Koji Fukada to compete in Venice. Love life, a delicately tangled story of generational conflict and silences that, without being overtly aggressive, can drive people apart. Anyone familiar with the work of the greatest master of Japanese cinema, Yasuhiro Ozu, will recognize the general territory. It is a space within which tectonic social shifts are disguised under layers of traditional social observance, often involving large meals, and where deep emotions can be, and often must be, contained in a glance.
Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and Jiro (Kento Nagayama) have been married for around a year, having met several years before at the welfare office where they both now work. Taeko already had a son, Keita (Tetta Shimada), from a previous marriage to a man who abandoned them when Keita was a baby, perhaps because he was barely able to fend for himself; he was deaf and a Korean immigrant, two social handicaps, but perhaps also a bit of a spendthrift. Taeko spent years trying to find him, fearing that she might have met a grisly end: it was this search for her that initially led her to the welfare office.
For Jiro’s parents, all of these things are black marks against Taeko. The fact that his son has married a woman a little older than him, that he has a child that is not of his blood, that she should have had something as irregular in her life as a deaf husband: could she not have done it? better jiro? “Goodbyes are fine,” his mother whispers in Taeko’s ear, “but not for everything.”
Jiro is calm in the face of this hostility. They’re married now, he says reasonably, so they’ll have to use it; Keita may not be his son, but he loves and cares for him like a modern, down-to-earth father. It’s harder for Taeko, who suffers from her visits, insults, and bigoted conversational gambits with surreptitiously gritted teeth. There is no way around them; they own the apartment where the couple lives, just across a public square from theirs. It is during one of his excruciating visits that Keita, abandoned to his fate, drowns in the remains of his bathwater.
Fukada presents this terrible event with chilling restraint, holding the camera for an apparent eternity on the side of the bathroom that no one thought to empty. Taeko oscillates between grim pain and blaming herself. When her ex-husband Park (Atom Sunada) bursts into her funeral, he runs towards her screaming and attacks her, she willingly succumbs to her beatings. Spaces are crucial to this film: while the apartment seems tiny when the parents are there, so crushed they can’t even close a door, the funeral home is an arena, a vast empty space into which Park bulls his way in search of a matador Every interior has a story to tell.
What follows Keita’s death is complicated. No one knows what they’re supposed to feel. Jiro will say later that he felt abandoned, that he felt he didn’t have enough pain to contribute. This unequal duel creates a distance between the pair, while Taeko finds himself drawn more and more to the dilapidated park. He is homeless, jobless and obviously erratic, but she is responsible for him. As the only person in the range who knows Korean Sign Language, she is his link to the world; she needs. And he was Keita’s father, the man she started a family with.
Fumino conveys this confused clinging to straws from the past with such commitment that Taeko never seems weak or less understanding, even at her most deluded; as Jiro tells him, more sad than angry, Park is neither weak nor needy, but he is certainly manipulative. She does not listen; she can’t hear Jiro, the rejected husband, is bewildered when her domestic idyll falls apart.
This is all the stuff of melodrama, but Love life never feel like one. Fukada works in pale colors, suburban settings, and, in the opening scenes, the kind of tinkling musical score more typical of Japanese romances, all of which draw in the big events that follow (Keita’s death, Park’s return, his monstrosity ) back to the realm of the everyday. As a melodrama that has been normalized, it may be too low for some audiences. They may feel like nothing much happened, no matter how full of tragic events it actually was. But for those of us who love silent family dramas where even eating noodles becomes a meaningful act, Love life makes Koji Fukada a director to watch.