Before We Vanish

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Before We Vanish
"Sometimes absurd, sometimes bone-chilling, strikingly original."

A schoolgirl emerges from a house where members of her family have been brutally murdered. A thirtysomething man suddenly struggles to walk or communicate, as if he's had a stroke, but doctors can't find anything wrong. A teenage boy attaches himself to a journalist and offers an explanation for this strange behaviour. They're aliens, he says, struggling to get used to how human bodies work. They have travelled to earth to collect human concepts. Once they have enough, they will unite and send out a signal so that the invasion can begin.

Naturally the journalist, Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), concludes that the boy is either mentally ill or winding him up, but as it's just possible that he knows something about the murders, he lets him tag along, agreeing to be his guide on Earth. Soon he witnesses things that make him less certain. He also discovers that officials from the army and the health department are on the trail of these people. There is talk of a virus. Cases of mental health crisis suddenly spike across the prefecture. Previously untroubled people start behaving very oddly, as if familiar, basic concepts have been lost to them.

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There are shades of the brilliant Canadian horror film Pontypool in this sometimes absurd, sometimes bone-chilling, strikingly original slice of science fiction. Sure, Denis Villeneuve recently took a Chomyskyist approach to communication with aliens in Arrival, but Tomohiro Maekawa's play does it in a very different way, and the screen adaptation he developed with Kiyoshi Kurosawa is both more intimate and more unnerving. Although the English subtitling isn't great, it's a film which is still more intriguing to watch as an outsider, with cultural observations so precise and linguistic nuances so particular that the non-native viewer is placed in a similar place to the self-declared aliens, pcking up new concepts along the way.

What makes it more than a two dimensional high-concept drama is the way that ideas about conceptual difference are shown to exist within human society as well as between humans and others. Whilst scenes with a goldfish and a dog remind us of the familiar complexity of interspecies communication, a key scene features the ailing thirtysomething man's wife, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) sitting at her desk at work when her boss comes over to massage her shoulders. Her horror at his actions and his confusion when she pulls away suggests that here are people inhabiting the same planet yet living in different universes.

Narumi loves her husband and isn't prepared to let him go, whether he is mentally ill or possessed by another being (functionally, it might not make much difference which is the case). Their developing relationship provides the emotional backbone of the film, and though scenes between them are sometimes too slow, they provide welcome balance alongside the chaotic and amoral aspects of the tale. Viewers may well guess where their story is going halfway through, but that doesn't deprive it of potency, and the more sentimental parts of the film are not without a dry wit of their own.

Doubtless some viewers will find this contemplative and mannered tale of impending doom rather bloodless. Others, however, will find it a delight, and whichever camp you're in, you're unlikely to see very much else like it.

Reviewed on: 30 Jan 2018
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Before We Vanish packshot
Narumi and her husband Shinji are going through a rocky patch when Shinji suddenly vanishes, returning several days later, utterly transformed. At the same time, a family is brutally murdered, and the town beset by strange phenomena. Journalist Sakurai begins to investigate the mystery…

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Writer: Tomohiro Maekawa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka

Starring: Masami Nagasawa, Ryûhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Mahiro Takasugi

Year: 2017

Runtime: 129 minutes

Country: Japan


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