Life: Untitled


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Life: Untitled
"Yamada uses popular comedy tropes to draw in viewers, then invites them to question what they just saw." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Given the festival's history, it wasn't surprising to see a few films appear out of left field at Fantasia 2020. Whilst it doesn't strictly fit into any of the genre categories covered there, Kana Yamada's meditation on life in the Japanese sex industry certainly deals with the relationship that people have with fantasy. It's a wake-up call for anyone still under the impression that sex workers are traded only in access to flesh, revealing a loneliness at the heart of Japanese society which is only made worse by prejudice and class divisions.

It might not be the Japan that people expect to see in 2020, but everyone knows it's there - somewhere just underneath the surface, out of sight, weighted down by a culture of shame. In a small business lounge, escorts gather - one male, several female, plus their manager, his admin assistant and a driver who also does odd jobs as required. There are books, a television, bowls kept full of snacks by mutual agreement - the sort of things you'd expect to see in a staff room anywhere. Every now and again, a call comes in and one of the escorts is dispatched on a job. In between, they sit around and bitch or laugh at clients' efforts to pretend that their encounters are mutually appealing and romantic. They discuss the various sources of stress in their work and personal lives and agitate for better employment rights.

Adapted from her stage play, this is one of Yamada's first ventures into film, and there's a theatrical quality about the scenes in the lounge, but elsewhere she uses the camera more fluidly. The film's only real sex scene is a frantic affair as the woman involved decides she wants out (revolted, apparently, by the client's bad breath), the client trying to hold onto her and then to pursue her. It's a scene of attempted rape played for laughs, a bold move especially from a female director, but it sets the tone for what follows perfectly. The women have learned to laugh in desperate situations and to focus on the absurdities of their encounters as a form of psychological self-defence. Yamada uses popular comedy tropes to draw in viewers, then invites them to question what they just saw.

Not all sex work is like this, of course, and not all sex workers are social misfits or economic conscripts like the ones we see here, but Yamada seems specifically interested in these ones because she's exploring social exclusion more generally. Like a latter day Life Of Oharu, her film demonstrates that every perceived disgrace, every small loss of status results in further exclusion, making it all but impossible to escape a downward spiral. Yet unlike Mizoguchi's heroine, these women fight from the outset to avoid internalising shame. In one scene, they rail at the men for treating them like inferiors when they all work in the same industry, demanding to know what it is about their sex that justifies that way of thinking.

In failing to nobly bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, these women make themselves far more difficult to sympathise with than the tragic Oharu. Yamada seems to be asking why sympathy should be necessary for them to deserve justice. Yet in making them less saintly, more human, she also makes them easier to relate to. One of the women picks fights so often that it's curious nobody has thought of channelling her fierce energy into pro-domme work. Another routinely humiliates herself before the drivers, whose disregard of her only makes her love more intense, and yet we gradually get the sense that she may be right about his feelings for her after all, and that he's simply denying them out of self-hatred. nothing here is as straightforward as it might first appear to be. And then there's Mahiru.

Played by Yuri Tsunematsu with a fractured intensity that recalls Sheryl Lee's work in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mahiru is the linchpin of the piece. She represents the popular fantasy of a sex worker, all big eyes and quick little pout, giggling like an animé character, letting nothing break through her kawaii façade. That it is a façade is obvious, but less so what's underneath. Mahiru is a natural survivor, not just in this business but, it's suggested, in Japanese society more widely. There's a ruthlessness about her whose origins we can only guess at. For all that she laughs and flutters her eyelashes like a child, she's always two steps ahead of everyone else, and the only character who seems to have any real measure of control.

With so much going on, the film is sometimes too tangled for its own good. Audiences may struggle to connect with all the characters at a single viewing. Nevertheless, there's a lot to admire about it, and it certainly marks out Yamada as a filmmaker worth watching.

Reviewed on: 03 Sep 2020
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A closed-room drama about the hardships and resilience of a group of young women working in the escort industry.

Director: Kana Yamada

Writer: Kana Yamada

Starring: Sairi Ito, Reiko Kataoka, Aimi Satsukawa, Yuri Tsunematsu

Year: 2020

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Japan


Fantasia 2020

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