Saturday 6 November 2010

Miyuki (2007)

Directors: Immanuel Martin
Stars: Yuri Nanami, Barclay Iversen, Joe Amos, Linden Young and Karl Heinz-Teuber

Miyuki is currently the only feature written and directed by Immanuel Martin, surprising because he obviously has both talent and something to say and because this was released back in 2007. It's far from your usual horror movie as it doesn't follow any of the usual genre conventions, but it's all the more creepy for not swimming in blood or setting us up with paper thin monsters. The choice to slip into Japanese with subtitles on occasion is rare for an American film, like the choice of giving the lead role to a young Japanese lady who has not acted before or since. Neither is likely to make a mainstream audience happy but I get the impression that Martin isn't looking for a big hit with Miyuki and both these choices add to the realism and help to ground his film. It begins deceptively quietly with countryside that's as pleasant as Saiko Nakamura's minimalistic score and it stays deliberately quiet and slow throughout.

We're in the scenic San Francisco hills at the home of Wayne and Natalie McKenzie, who take in a Japanese student called Miyuki Kageyama. She's come to the States to study English at the Golden Gate Language Institute and in the hands of Yuri Nanami, she's as politely unsure of her new situation and her new hosts as you might expect. Obviously inexperienced as an actress, Nanami really nails the part. She's thoroughly believable as a stranger in a strange land, lonelier and lonelier as time goes by, as befits a character who has never really belonged anywhere and simply wants to. She's resigned to being a fish out of water in a foreign country because that's entirely the point of immersion learning, but she obviously has a hope that this will be a happy place for her. 'Please don't worry. They are kind to me,' she tells the photo of her family that she's brought with her, a family who she doesn't talk about to anyone.
While there's obviously a story behind her own family, which we soon learn, there's obviously a story behind the McKenzies too. They do their level best to be a welcoming influence but cracks soon show in their facade. There's dysfunction at every connection, between Wayne and Natalie and between both of them and their teenage son Ryan. He's played by Barclay Iversen, again an inexperienced actor but one who finds the depth in his character well. As much as Miyuki wants to be part of the McKenzie household, he doesn't. He wants out badly, but in keeping with the subtlety that pervades the film, he wouldn't be good on The Jerry Springer Show. Rather than being antagonistic, he just doesn't communicate: he doesn't answer their questions, he stays out as long as he can and he doesn't address the issues he has with his parents, at least not with anyone who can help. Even his punk friends think that he doesn't appreciate what he has.

So while he seethes quietly, Miyuki helps out. It's hardly deliberate, but the more he stays out, the more she begins to fill the obvious gap he creates and the whole family dynamic begins to shift. Natalie starts relying on Miyuki constantly, even though she keeps messing up. Everything Miyuki does is right, even when it's wrong; everything Ryan does is wrong, even when it's right. Now, at this point you might be wondering what sort of horror movie this is, that concerns itself with such subtleties, instead of slapping us in the forehead with a scary shock moment, but the text displayed before the title provides us with a background to ponder as we watch. A little girl was killed in 1609, during the Sengoku, or Warring States, period, and her body lay undisturbed in a Hirosaki temple until 1948. 'Some things', we're told, 'should never be disturbed.' This may sound like a routine J-horror flick but the component parts are treated very differently.
I really enjoyed Miyuki, which succeeds far beyond the limitations imposed by the slight budget and the lack of experience of those involved. For the most part, it's well written and engaging, avoiding all the J-horror stereotypes and even providing a fascinating metaphor for the postwar relationship between the US and Japan. Immanuel Martin, who wrote and directed, deserves a lot of kudos for his work and that's only more evident on a second viewing, as we see precisely how he set us up to assume things that are later revealed to be something else entirely. And this is why it seems really strange to find three scenes that are the epitome of clumsiness and which stand out all the more for being surrounded by such subtlety. It feels like the sort of thing you get in Hollywood when the studio requires something dumb for reasons of their own and trumps the filmmaker's integrity. Yet this can't remotely be mistaken for Hollywood.

What's most unfortunate is that one of the bad scenes is the heart of the finalé, a horrible scene in every way that is followed by another that is good only in comparison. After that, it returns to quality and subtlety again, leaving us shocked for all the wrong reasons at why such a solid film had to die horribly for a few minutes. The third offender has Dr Grunewald talk to himself so we can learn some detail, and such clumsiness is out of place here. Grunewald is a quirky choice of English professor, given that it means Miyuki travels from Japan to the US to learn English from a German, but I like the quirkiness. Actor Karl-Heinz Teuber began his film career with Amadeus (both as a wig salesman and a makeup assistant) but has found himself playing Mr Weiner in Psychic Puppeteer Hair Stylist #1: The Sex Change Operation. He gets two scenes alone in his office: one painful and one superb. That one has him talk on the phone in excellent Japanese.

Miyuki looks very good, courtesy of cinematographer Sasha Popove who even manages to frame inexperienced actors well; they all find their spots and meet their cues. Mostly everything feels down to earth, possibly because it is. The actors are natural, the sets are probably real people's homes and it's obvious that many of the folks in bit parts knew each other well. There's even a minor celebrity, Jim Wierzba, playing Ryan's uncle Harold. He's a Hulk Hogan impersonator and it's great to see him do something unrelated to that. There are little details that don't work, like the McKenzies' baby daughter being not remotely close to her supposed age of nine months or the police headquarters looking like the lobby of a dentist's office with a wanted poster on the wall, but mostly they're ignorable. To me they just highlight why filmmakers with obvious vision can't always work miracles without the money to pay for them. I hope Immanuel Martin gets the financing he needs for his next film, which I'll be looking forward to.

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