Stewing about in this dystopian caldron of 2017, where our cultural decadence has made me involuntarily cognizant of a subset of society that, let’s just say, isn’t especially becoming, has made the act of writing gratingly difficult. Thing is, I need to get out of the political moment – a moment filled with the ABCs of alternative facts and bad hombres and carnage, all bellowed through the loudspeaker of a tiny-handed goblin cloaked in a butterscotch human-epidermis costume– and I need to get out of it in a hurry.
The Gene Siskel Film Center offers refuge for those looking to disconnect in the form of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s latest film, Happy Hour (Highly Recommended). His five-plus hour opus screens for (just) two afternoons, this Friday and Saturday, and its booking at the downtown theater is a significant grab for a film that undoubtedly presents its own set of scheduling obstacles. But while its length will undoubtedly keep casual attendees at bay, I urge all cinephiles to experience Hamaguchi’s quaint and brazenly humanistic portrait on the big screen.
The film centers on the friendship of four women living in Kobe. We first see them ascending to a mountaintop for a picnic, the burst of light that welcomes the quartet signaling the promise of something picturesque, only to see them dine under the refuge of a gazebo as the scenery is overwhelmed by clouds. It’s a rough start, as the four aren’t especially defined by any particular characteristic, delivering lines with a kind of stilted cadence. Though it’s in this scene’s aftermath that we immediately gather the cumulative details of Hamaguchi’s filmmaking.
Hamaguchi divides his attention on the four women as they fulfill their routines: Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) is a lonely housewife, subservient to an inattentive husband that enforces a definitive boundary between her domestic role and his professional one; Akari (Tanaka Sachie) is a divorced nurse defined by her direct personality – she’s rigid, honest, and decisively efficient and my favorite character of the film; Fumi (Mihara Maiko) is the manager of an art showroom and married to a literary magazine editor, who more or less confronts similar domestic obstacles as Sakurako, and finally Jun (Kawamura Rira) , the most opaque of them all and the catalyst to the film’s narrative ambitions.
Hamaguchi patiently dedicates a period of time with each woman, revealing details about their personalities through natural flourishes. The comforts that their sorority provides are jeopardized during a night out of drinks where Jun reveals that she’s going through a divorce. It’s during this moment that nuances in their relationship are revealed: we learn that Jun confided in Sakurako first – as they’ve been friends since primary school and her friendship with Fumi and Akari only began in their thirties. We learn that Akari is hurt that her friend could not confide the quarrels of her relationship with such a close friend. And following a heated exchange, we observe the women attempt to navigate through their own relationships, where the news has effectively realigned their perception of the world.
The scene that precedes this night of secrets and alcohol involves an extensive workshop with a conceptual artist named Ukai (Shibata Shuhai). During this workshop, Ukai guides his participants in exercises that emphasize balance and nonverbal communication. Akari, Jun, and Sakurako participate (Fumi schedules and observes the event in her showroom), playfully going along with Ukai’s instruction despite their obvious confusion. If they achieve a measure of balance, both physical and spiritual, it’s surely short-lived with Jun’s bombshell.
It’s the divorce proceeding that follows later into the third hour of the film that really highlights Hamaguchi’s formal proficiency. A simple set-up is used: a deep-focus shot direct shot of Jun as she’s in a courtroom. Akari, Fumi, and Sakurako sit in the courthouse’s benches behind her, all clearly defined as they agonize over hearing Jun’s testimony. Jun no longer loves her husband, confessing the resulting anomie that has come from years of attempting to force a connection between the two. Hamaguchi will cut to a profile view of Jun when her husband, providing his testimony from across the room. She’s no longer in focus, her profile a blur as Jun’s husband selfishly denies her allegations of marital dissatisfaction. Simply rendered, Hamaguchi will deploy this one-two shot sequence later in the film, and its implications are absolutely stunning.
But while this may all suggest a dour exercise in the pangs relationships and the competing personalities in any friendship, it’s more than that. This is a delightfully human film, one that observes its characters with a sense of tranquil reverence. While most have cited Jacques Rivette as a comparison, I immediately recalled something a little more populist in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Both films contend with the problems that come with adult relationships, both platonic and romantic, and find humor and humanity in their failures. And to paraphrase a quote from another film currently screening in Chicago, in times like these, one should not lose the humor. With Happy Hour, sometimes that’s all you have, where you just have to go with your gut and strive for balance in a perpetually off-kilter world.