starring Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ann Whitney
written and directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
starring Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyôko Koizumi, Yû Koyanagi, Kai Inowaki
screenplay by Max Mannix, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka
directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
by Walter Chaw In case you haven't noticed, there's a cinematic trend afoot that looks to the fringes for stories of survival in a world where it's suddenly chic to shop at the thrift store. I credit Harmony Korine and David Gordon Green with first finding the poetry in destitution in this new American cycle, with maybe Gus Van Sant (with his Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) acting as the accidental primogenitor. If it's not Frozen River's trailer-park heroine and her dalliance with human trafficking, it's Wendy & Lucy's despair from the bottom of the capitalist food chain. In the mainstream, there's Sean Penn's fantastic Into the Wild and the reboot of 3:10 to Yuma, which at its heart is a drama about the toll of being the breadwinner. Even Hancock, a movie that keeps improving in the rearview, can be read with profit as a document of how tough it is for the everyday Joe to eke out a living in a culture designed for the affluent, the physically gifted, the innately well-spoken. Like any social movement in film, however, a lot of the stuff is minimally affecting, message-oriented garbage that seems very pleased with itself as it, like the exec pushing a broken cart through Goodwill, wears its limitations as if dragging a cross uphill. There appears to be a race to the bottom: the first to total, Warholian inertia wins the booby prize. Most of it's destined to be remembered as symptoms of the affliction and not as the illness itself; the runny nose, not the Plague.
And then there's Sugar, from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the husband-and-wife hyphenates behind the sometimes-surprising Half Nelson. A departure from what a sports underdog picture is expected to deliver with a decidedly '70s sensibility, it's completely uncompromised, yet it's not a downer: although there's not a hint of a lie about it, nor much optimism in its truth, the feeling of it when it's over is exhilaration at time spent with real characters placed in real situations. Sugar is a wicked companion piece to Aronofsky's The Wrestler, both of them using sports as the means through which Billy Wilder protagonists seek entrance to the city on the hill--only to find that their vehicle may also be their yoke.
Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto, in a magnificent debut) is arrogant, cocksure, and possessed of a wicked knuckle curve he harnesses and guides into a shot at the Show. Pulled into a Major League farm in the Dominican run by ex-MLB'ers and visited by scouts from the States, he dreams of hitting the Bigs by rising through every level required of him by the American professional-sports dream factory. He gets called up to a single-A team in Iowa and earns a foster family that is as evangelical Christian as Sugar is devoutly Catholic. He falls for his foster sister Anne (Ellary Porterfield), finds new parental figures in kindly Helen and Earl (Anne Whitney and Richard Bull, in roles that Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn might have played--and in much the same fashion--twenty years ago), and sets up the Great American Sports Uplift story before deciding to go in an entirely different direction. Not happy horseshit, neither is Sugar indie-outrage that trots out its ease-of-use politics in embarrassed auto-justification. Instead, it's the very definition of a thoughtful picture. In one tight little package, and without resorting to any grand speeches, it discusses miscegenation and religion, multiculturalism and cultural diffusion. It has an opinion about Major League Baseball opening mills in the Dominican Republic in search of talent with which to line their coffers and fill their stadiums--and that opinion is that it's not as simple as you perhaps think.
Like The Wrestler again, our hero leaves his sport for a time, getting a job in the "real world" washing dishes and sending money home to his mother even once his visa expires. If it's a useful corollary to The Wrestler, it's a stern condemnation of The Visitor, discussing rather than exploiting--through story rather than through dialogue--what it means to the immigrant to come to the United States, as well as the family and dreams left behind. After The Visitor was over, I wanted my very own adorable ethnic couple to teach me how to have soul; after Sugar ended, I wanted to commiserate with someone else who had seen it. When Sugar decides to stay in the U.S. using any means possible, it's this melancholy note, held through to the finish, about the grace of the American Dream not for the guy washing dishes, but for the people hearing the streets of Manhattan bustle in the background buzz of a long-distance telephone connection.
Across the pond (the other pond), Kiyoshi Kurosawa leaves the J-Horror genre for which he's probably best known in the United States (see: Bright Future, Pulse, Cure) and injects his auteurist theme of the individual pulled by a massive, unknowable, malignant force into the bedlam into an intimate domestic drama. Tokyo Sonata, at first glance, plays less like the work of Kurosawa than like that of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, but as the story of downsized executive Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) unfolds, following roughly the same blueprint as Laurent Cantet's Time Out as Ryuhei conceals his unemployment from his wife and two sons, it comes clear that Kurosawa's brilliant, refined take on mass hysteria in his horror films has been translated intact. In its way, Tokyo Sonata is the scariest film of his career. Consider Ryuhei's days spent in Tokyo, wandering through construction sites, getting free meals with legions of other zombies in business suits either too ashamed to admit their situation or too conditioned by routine to do anything but enact their daily rituals, with or without the paycheck to justify it.
It's not unlike the scene from Romero's Dawn of the Dead where the human protagonists instinctively obey the queue line in a long-abandoned bank. Consider, too, the prologue that sees Ryuhei's long-suffering wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) cleaning water that's blown in from a torrential downpour, then opening a closed door again to stare out into the stormy, shapeless wild. Beautifully shot and meticulously paced, Tokyo Sonata is about giving oneself over to chaos, holding hand over heart and stepping out into the abyss. The happy ending most have accused the picture of is actually much in line with the ambiguous open-endings of Kurosawa's best horror films. After all the turmoil, revelations, and confrontations, Ryuhei and his family--one son off to war, the other a piano prodigy--become completely ordinary, as indistinct as the phantoms haunting Pulse, shuffling through their paces, luxuriating in their small victories, lifeless as bits of fluff carried on the wind. The wordlessness of its epilogue isn't one of Ozu's pillow moments but rather surrender, mute, to the absolute arbitrariness of the universe. As haunted and aimless as "Claire de Lune" (played at the picture's closing recital), Tokyo Sonata is Kurosawa allowed at last to make a horror film that reveals that, for him, true horror is being content to accept salvation in the life of a sheep. Originally published: April 8, 2009.