Pale Moon


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Pale Moon
"Flawless central performances and a cool, observational approach from director Yoshida imbue it with a quiet power."

If you've ever worked in the service industry, you've probably experienced that odd sense of dislocation when looking after customers who are, for no clear reason, much better off than you - to the point where they seem completely unaware of issues like making the rent which dominate your life. Imagine how much stranger that is when you are - in a largely cash-based culture - actually handling their cash, carrying it between their homes and the bank, perhaps stopping off at the shops along the way and having to poke around in your wallet for a few coins to cover the cost of your purchases. It would seem such a little thing to borrow a bit of the bank's money and pay it back later. But one thing leads to another.

Rika (Rie Miyazawa) is not the sort of person you'd associate with criminality. She's quiet, demure, respectably dressed, even vulnerable around her clients. We meet her first in the home of an older client whose questions get very personal, creating an intense sense of threat. Just how much sacrifice do her bosses expect from her? As it happens, she's rescued by the appearance of the client's nephew (SĂ´suke Ikematsu), but later she realises he's following her on the underground. It's here that something changes. She could call for help. She could confront him, this boy half her age. Instead she goes with him to cheap hotel room and, perhaps for the first time in her life, takes something she wants.

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Everything else seems to spiral from there, but the film's gentle pacing and Rika's generally conscientious nature remind us that in fact she is making a series of calculated decisions and there is never no other choice. "It is better to give than to receive," she thinks, reminding herself of her Catholic school's motto, so she 'borrows' money from the boy's uncle's account to pay him through college. He's to pay it back in installments. She focuses only on the price; he thinks about the cost, placing cash in a brown envelope beside the bed where they get together. Genuine passion becomes something else. Maintaining the illusion, she buys him clothes, pays for expensive meals and luxury hotels. With her husband away in China on business, she lets her own place turn into a sty. She has become more than an embezzler. She's breaking every rule in Japan's strictly codified society. She's living like a gaijin, living like a man.

Tales of financial misdeeds are not uncommon in Western literature and film, but Pale Moon is very different in that it never takes the easy route. As we wait for Rika to get caught, with shrewd supervisor Ms Sumi (Satomi Kobayashi) never looking away for long, the narrative begins to morph in unexpected ways, ultimately inviting viewers to question what - and who - is real. Flawless central performances and a cool, observational approach from director Yoshida imbue it with a quiet power which gradually escalates toward an ending that changes everything. As dry humour and bitter insight give way to something much more subversive, it opens like a flower, alluring, delicate, and dangerous.

Reviewed on: 25 Jan 2015
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A bored bank employee gradually begins embezzling money so she can live the life she wants, but nothing goes quite as she expected.

Director: Daihachi Yoshida

Writer: Mitsuyo Kakuta, Kaeko Hayafune

Starring: Rie Miyazawa, Sōsuke Ikematsu, Satomi Kobayashi

Year: 2014

Runtime: 126 minutes

Country: Japan


Glasgow 2015

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