Fantastic Fest: 'Golden Slumber' is the fest's first great movie
I confess a near-total ignorance towards the work of Yoshihiro Nakamura before I saw "Fish Story" at last year's Fantastic Fest. That movie made it to #17 on my list of favorite movies last year, and it's one of those little gems that I know I never would have seen if I did not attend film festivals.
It's a shame, too, because Nakamura is a major talent, a guy with an incredible ability to handle scale on both a large and a small level. His films feel like they are important, like the world of the movie is teetering on some sort of major cataclysmic shift, and yet his real signature as an artist is the way he sells the little details of his stories. He's got a wry, wicked sense of humor, and with his last film, he told the story of how one punk rock record saved the world from destruction. Here, it's more a case of the entire world turning on one guy, and him scrambling to save his own life. I'd call it Hitchcockian, and there's certainly some element of the "wrong man" model here, but the script, adapted by Kotaro Isaka from his own novel, is not content to just run its characters through familiar genre beats. Instead, it tries to tell a much bigger story about old friendships and conspiracy theory and innocence and guilt and celebrity and love, and while I'm not sure the film ever quite connects all the dots, there is so much here, and so much of it is so good, that "Golden Slumber" is automatically going on the list of films I need to see again this year, just to wrap my head around it completely.
The film's got one of the great paranoid starts to a film I've seen in a while. Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) is a bike messenger who became a momentary celebrity when he saved the life of a J-pop star, and now, a few years down the road, he's happily slipping back into obscurity when an old friend calls him up and asks him to go fishing. He shows up for the fishing trip and finds his old friend, a guy he knew in college who he hasn't seen in years, nervous and edgy. The guy drugs him, and when he wakes up, they're sitting in a car, parked about a hundred yards from a parade where the Prime Minister of Japan is riding in a car, and his old friend tells him that the Prime Minister is about to die, and Aoyagi is the one they're going to blame. BOOM! A bomb goes off, and within moment, Aoyagi is on the run, an innocent man with nowhere to turn.
And yet, that's not the movie. That makes it sound like a thriller or an action film, and it's not. For much of its running time, "Golden Slumber" is warm and funny and moving and hopeful and big-hearted and… well, kind of magical. There's a memory that is central to this whole group of friends, including Aoyagi, involving the whole group of them watching some fireworks that they helped set up, and it's breathtaking. It's this beautiful moment that resonates through their whole lives, and the way Takamura illustrates that is impressive. He has a Proustian sense of time, and much of the film is concerned with the way memory grounds us in more than one place at one time. For all of the paranoia inherent in the set-up, and in the way much of the film plays out, Takamura doesn't seem terribly interested in identifying who "they" are. He's merely content to state that "they" exist and "they" are the ones doing it, and so be it. His film is more about Aoyagi reuniting with these people he had lost from his life, all of them coming together to help save him and slip the noose from around his neck. He's Lee Harvey Oswald with a support system, determined to save him from this frame job.
Even that's not enough for Takamura, though. He's got a crazy serial killer subplot, as well as a really sweet look at first love and its lingering presence in life, and somehow both of those things seem to organically fit into the story he's telling. It's like a magic act with a juggling act built in and then things are on fire and something blows up and there's a chainsaw and then it's really funny and then it's sort of sad and then it's really sweet and then it's crazy. The film shouldn't work… it shouldn't be able to withstand that kind of tonal tightrope act. But that's what Takamura thrives on, that exact challenge, and as with "Fish Story," he's pulled it off. "Golden Slumber" is entertaining, first and foremost, as accessible a film as I'll see here this week aside from the subtitles. The meticulous script is built with the clockwork precision of early Zemeckis & Gale, with payoffs that are spread throughout the entire second half, a barrage of structural pleasure that is impressive. I can't imagine an American distributor with the vision to handle a film like "Golden Slumber," and just typing that makes me sad about the state of American film, and thrilled to be at Fantastic Fest once again.
"Golden Slumber" plays again Monday, September 27, at the Alamo S. Lamar 3.
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