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Review © Mandi Apple, 2007.

Bitter Sweet. Directed by Mitsuru Meike, 2004, 64 mins., starring Konatsu, Hitoshi Ishikawa, Yumika Hayashi, Kazuhiro Sano, Minami Aiyama and Takuya Fukushima.

Directed in 2004 by Mitsuru Meike (whose pinku eiga back catalogue credentials include the critically acclaimed Snow/Woman and the bizarre anti-George Bush comedy/pink movie The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai), Bitter Sweet (aka Bita Suito, aka Noko furin - Torareta onna, aka The Woman Swept Away By Heavy Infidelity) provides a very worthy, mature and beautiful addition to the pinku eiga genre.

The construct of the movie deals with all the ripples caused by two central protagonists, Shoko and Kudo, as they seek to reconnect themselves to a raw, real feeling of being alive by tearing down their own self-built prisons, through divorce and separation and destroying all known, safe and secure elements of their lives, whilst suffering all the horrors of the consequences of their actions and their effects on all the people connected to them. Intrinsically both central characters are immediately sympathetic, realistic and likeable: two lost souls, searching for something more meaningful in their empty lives, and possibly something we can all relate to on a very basic level.

Clocking in at a mere hour's length, the film is really well-paced, neatly packaged, doesn't drag at any juncture and doesn't outstay its welcome. Stylistically, Meike makes good use of dreamlike, kinetic editing and imagery: slightly blurred, misty, choppy atmospherics evoke a truly disorientating sense of unreality. In fact, much of the film is shot in that way: colour-tinted, with a certain fogginess, giving the viewer a strange sense that the main characters are cutting themselves off from the world, that they are almost living in a dream-state, completely isolated from each other and from reality. However, the shakycam techniques also used heavily throughout serve the opposite purpose, interestingly - to suggest that this really is reality, through a close-up cinema verite approach and a complete lack of any incidental music - so Meike maintains a deft balance between the two mental states for the viewer.

Certainly the sex scenes retain an unnervingly realistic and in-your-face realism that makes the viewer experience a number of conflicting emotional states all at the same time - empathy, eroticism, sadness, uncomfortable voyeurism and an underlying feeling of passionate desperation that infuses the sex scenes with a deep, disquieting and yet mesmerisingly erotic tension. There is an urgency, an emotional fierceness there which is at once enchanting and disturbing, and something that not many pink films manage to convey quite so intensely.

In addition to this, Meike has a clever manner of gently revealing his characters' emotional states clearly and beautifully through very small, intimate and quiet moments, and it lends the whole piece a deep feeling of melancholy. For example, there's a lovely exchange which sums up Shoko's sense of dissatisfaction perfectly: when she goes to the registry office to pick up her marriage license form, at the same time an older man comes to the same counter to pick up a divorce license form, and both their eyes meet for a moment in empathy. It's almost like a warning to her that this is the possible end of the path she's embarking on - and it serves as a forewarning of what is yet to come. There is so much meaning in the tiniest details that if you don't watch closely, you won't pick up on the emotional tenet of the piece. The quality of the acting is absolutely outstanding: all the performances are subtle and understated, carrying a great sense of emotional gravitas, allowing the viewer to fully engage with the characters in their awful and realistic predicaments.


"Men's bodies taste bitter, but sweet..."

A pretty young girl, Shoko, is about to get married to her boyfriend Tamura. However, it would seem that she is in a great deal of doubt about it. She goes out to a restaurant one night with her friend Mika and the subject of her impending marriage comes up: she jokes about calling it off, but it seems that there may be a ring of truth about her joking, since at home the next day, she "accidentally" tears her marriage licence application form, and ends up ripping it into bits.

This may be somewhat due to the fact that a man who took her fancy in the registry office, who was getting his divorce papers while she was getting her marriage papers, turns out to be the owner and head chef of the restaurant Mika and Shoko were dining at. Late the next evening, when there are no customers left, Shoko goes back to the restaurant, clearly romantically interested in Kudo, the restauranteur, and ends up pretty much throwing herself at him. She is terrified of her forthcoming wedding and is in a vulnerable, messed-up emotional state - as is Kudo, who is at the opposite end of the scale, yet equally vulnerable and messed-up all the same. They end up making love in the restaurant, on the table (I wouldn't eat at this place myself, by the way, you never know what someone's been doing on top of the plates :-)), and so embark on a tender, somewhat needy affair.

However, the next day when Shoko comes to see Kudo, an older man, Yoshida, catches them embracing, and throws a punch at him. It turns out that Yoshida was at college with Kudo, and that Kudo stole Yoshida's girlfriend Keiko, married her, and is now divorcing her. Yet what will happen when Tamura finds out that Shoko is calling their marriage off? And when Kudo finds out that Yoshida is dying, how will that affect both his hitherto collapsing marriage to Keiko, and his affair with Shoko, which is also already on the verge of ruin?

Bitter Sweet does exactly what it says on the tin: it's a beautiful, measured, complex emotional drama, and at the same time a sad, bleak indictment of the pitfalls of marriage, of the turbulence and fickleness of human emotions, of mistakes and regret, loneliness and betrayal, and of the preciousness of life in the face of mortality. With Bitter Sweet, Mitsuru Meike has crafted a stunning, affecting film of flawless simplicity and maturity, a profound, touching work of art.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment Value: 8/10
Chills: 0/10
Acting: 9/10
Sex: 9/10
Violence: 0/10
Boobies: 6/10 - a surprising lack of boobage, under the circumstances ;-)
Cringe-making moments: plentiful/10

Films in a Similar Style: Ambiguous, Raigyo, Despite All That, Lunch Box

*** Recommended to fans of arthouse drama. Oh, and sex. ***

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Mitsuru Meike
Yumika Hayashi


http://salvation-films.com/WebForms/Product.aspx?ProductID=177 - Salvation are releasing the DVD and you can buy it direct from them at this link
http://www.argopictures.jp/lineup/bittersweet.html - official Japanese subsite with trailer
http://www.dvdoutsider.co.uk/dvd/reviews/b/bitter_sweet.html - positive review at DVD Outsider

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