Pathfinder // 1998 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // January 14th, 2008
There's no better way to relax after murdering your lover than a quiet drive through the Japanese countryside.
There's always something exciting about watching a movie that you've never heard of. Often, the films aren't that good but on rare occasions, a film surprises you and remains in your memory for a long time. In requesting Sunday Drive, I had the impression of a thriller in the vein of The Vanishing, but little else struck me. It turns out that this little gem tells a compelling crime story of transitory love and loneliness that made a very strong impression on me, and is one of the best independent films I've seen in some time.
Yui (Miako Tadano) works at the local video store with her boyfriend Shinji (Takuji Suzuki). Though they're in love, there's something strange about their relationship. One night, Shinji and Okamoto (Shinya Tsukamoto), the store manager who is himself in love with Yui, are alone in the store and Shinji describes a chance encounter which ends with him cheating on Yui. He begs his manager to say nothing to Yui but, when the manager leaves the store, he sees Yui outside, and she's heard the whole story. She realizes that her relationship has been based on lies, and Okamoto offers to help her. The scene cuts to back inside the store and Shinji is laying in a pool of blood with the two standing above him. Without really acknowledging what they've done, Yui and Okamoto, who she won't stop calling "Manager," steal Shinji's brother's van and set off on the road to escape the law. At a rest area, a little girl appears out of nowhere and, not seeing her parents anywhere around, they kidnap her and make their own little family in crime. When the law never comes, and nobody comes looking for the girl, they find out that things are not how they had seemed. Lies caused this trouble in the first place, and now the same lies have made Yui realize that her life will never be the same.
Is Sunday Drive a murder mystery or a story of love gone sour? This tale of Bonnie and Clyde through the Japanese countryside has elements of both, with some bone-dry comedy thrown in for good measure. What strikes me most strongly is how naturally writer/director Hisashi Saito melds these elements together without force, just letting the actors tell the story. For the small amount of action in the film, so much goes on under the surface. Saito sets the camera and allows the action to unfold without the need for cuts or stylish inserts. It takes a lot of bravery from the director and a lot of confidence in his actors to allow the scenes to go on untouched as long as he does. At its most extreme, one scene lasts for ten full minutes without an edit. Let me repeat myself: ten minutes without a cut. The rest of the scenes don't run this long but, when you are used to American films that average about four seconds per shot and often less, this kind of incredibly slow beat really allows the viewer to absorb the scene and listen to the actors in a rare way.
Because of the complete and deliberate lack of action in the film, the success of the project hinges entirely on the strength of the actors. I don't think that the performances are improvised, but the actors are so natural in their roles that they could be speaking off the cuff. Their speech is often stilted, and they come across sometimes as almost hypnotized, but this adds to the creepiness and to the strange humor. When the little girl appears, literally out of nowhere, she says nothing and the lovers don't find this odd at all. They take her in as one of their own and enjoy themselves as a real family does. When she proves her worldliness by committing her own crime against them, they laugh as though they've gotten exactly what they deserve. They are children on the run, neither understanding what they've done nor the consequences of their actions. But in this tale of transitory love, it's in the lies that the truth is revealed, and the surface is an insular fantasy world that the characters, especially Yui, fight desperately to maintain. When no other options present themselves, and they are forced to accept what they've done, they retreat even farther from reality, riding off into a supposed sunset of romance and crime. This is romance at its most idealized and fanatical, with no regard for others and no regard for their own well-being. What feels so strange, in light of all this, is the characters' lack of ability to express their emotions, resigning themselves coldly to their feelings, but not understanding that, when those emotions change, their lives will not take them back.
Pathfinder's release of Sunday Drive could have been better, but for as small time as the movie is, I can't really expect much more. The film is shot on video and the full-frame picture is what you would expect. The scenes are crisp and clearly detailed, with deep blacks and strong color saturation and without noticeable artifacts, grain, or edge enhancement. The surround sound is perfectly clear, but there are no sound effects that will test your system. The special features are slight, with a written discussion of the film by Roseanna Lawrence, who I am not familiar with, a slideshow of stills from the movie, and a series of trailers (including one for a film called The Calamari Wrestler which, literally, is about a pro wrestling squid; that I simply must see). The bare-bones presentation is fitting for this bare-bones film.
I have very little negative to say about Sunday Drive. The only quibble I have with the DVD is in the subtitling. The grammar is often wrong in the translation, which makes the dialog sometimes confusing, but it always works itself out in the end. I wish there had been some kind of commentary track, but given that Saito likely doesn't speak English, I can understand.
Sunday Drive represents everything I love about independent foreign film. Between the strong performances and assured, if minimalist, directorial style, it's a surprisingly engrossing film that deftly explores the darkly fantastic side of romance. Realistic and surreal at the same time, I can't recommend film strongly enough, even if the DVD could have been more complete.
Without question, Sunday Drive is not guilty and free to go. The court does implore Saito-san to come to America to teach our filmmakers that a billion jump cuts do not make a compelling film. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Film Notes by Roseanna Lawrence
* Still Gallery