Director: Atsushiro Yamata
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There is little that delights a film buff more than films about film buffs. Happy Ending, a perky rom-com from Japan, mixes the love of movies with just plain love, blurring the border between real life and movie life with knowing wit.
Momoko (Nahana) is a young “movie bum,” as the cranky owner (Reona Hirota) of the Asahi art house calls the small group of hardcore cinephiles who attend her failing movie theater. Edgy and unsentimental, Momoko dismisses a door-to-door fundraiser for a children’s charity with “Why do you have to do this now? Won’t the children still be there tomorrow?” As she pads around her cluttered and messy apartment getting ready for her job at a library, Momoko crushes her eyeglasses. With cellophane tape holding one of the arms in place and her dyed-red hair, Momoko’s nerd credentials are unassailable.
She visits the 21st Century video store to return and borrow some DVDs. She sloughs off suggestions about the latest rom-coms from Hollywood, flashing her returns in a clerk’s face—Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes (“the best”). Kuroda (Tomoharu Hasegawa), a Tarantino wannabe who also works at the video store, is Momoko’s film buddy, sharing with her a disdain for mainstream fare and its predictable plots.
Unfortunately for Momoko and Kuroda, biology overwhelms her good taste in films when she comes in contact with the dashingly handsome Murakami (Ryûnosuke Kawai), whose favorite film is Armageddon. Momoko’s coworker, the more traditionally feminine Maki (Mami Nakamura), starts calling Murakami “Prince” and points to the romantic cliché that brought the two of them together—when reaching for the same book, their hands touched.
Momoko is teased by Maki and Kuroda, replying “it’s not like that” over and over until it actually is like that. Murakami, who was first seen with a girlfriend, rather inexplicably asks Momoko out. Maki comes to the rescue with feminine clothing and the suggestion of contact lenses. When Momoko goes into the video store with some returns, she gets the full dolled-up scene, the camera panning from her high-heel shoes to the top of her head, where she now sports a Germanic braid headband. Kuroda, of course, is dumbstruck by her beauty and wants her for himself. But as in all rom-coms, he has to help Momoko in her quest for Mr. Wonderful, even though we all know that he and Momoko belong together.
References to John Hughes come up to let Momoko know what kind of a movie she’s in. And, of course, Kurado briefs her on the plots of these films she never watches to let her know what will happen next: for example, on her first date with the Prince, he tells her, something tragic will happen now that the two have finally gotten together. Sure enough, as Momoko protests to Kurado, who has followed her, that she’s not in a movie, Murakami is hit by an SUV as he is carrying some drinks back to her. It’s a very funny pratfall that leads to more mishaps that made me feel kind of sorry for the guy.
Kurado holds up Roman Holiday as his ideal of a good romantic comedy that doesn’t have a happy ending. And it is, of course, through Roman Holiday—just like Sleepless in Seattle and An Affair to Remember—that the destined pair are brought together. In between, we have a fair amount of movie magic that signals the film within a film within a film we’re watching—an appliance plummets to the ground out of thin air, Momoko watches a movie that is, in fact, the movie we’re watching, and empty streets and shops proliferate when Momoko is at her lowest.
A bit unusual for a DV-shot film, Happy Ending is a riot of crisp, dizzying color. All of the actors are wonderful and very appealing as screen presences. Even Kawai, who I thought looked like the surgically deformed Michael Jackson, creates a likeable cad who is only following the script. Most appealing of all is Nahana, who creates a gawky, confused nerd whom teens in any country could relate to—her character seems to have been closely modeled on Molly Ringwald’s in Pretty in Pink. The film has a Hollywood style, of course, but I was intrigued how director Yamata showed the odd mix of Western and Japanese cultures in his pans across storefronts and their strangely translated signage and artifacts of Japanese society in a vintage clothing and wares store.
Happy Ending is a lighthearted, Technicolor pleasure. Go see it with someone you love.
Happy Ending will be showing on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.