Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Karen Fukuhara in Stray
"Although the story is simple (beyond its merging of two different sets of genre conventions), it's stylishly presented."

Superhero films have been taking an interesting direction of late. Forget the flashy, big-budget antics of Marvel's Avengers and the train wreck that was Batman V Superman - it's at the opposite end of the scale, as indeed it was with comics, that storytellers are beginning to experiment and innovate. Stray may not be the most inventive of these projects but there's something interesting about its transplantation of Japanese genre tropes to the US, which is focused less on introducing them to a new culture than on exploring the resultant culture clash.

The usual concerns about US appropriation of ideas from other cultures falls flat when it comes to Japan, which is every bit as good at cultural imperialism, especially when it comes to cinema. Furthermore, director/co-writer Joe Sill hasn't simply stolen tropes and applied them to white American characters - most of his characters are immigrants or visitors, themselves Japanese in origin, which provides an interesting device through which to confront the white Americans with something they don't understand (but something with which genre-savvy viewers are likely to have a degree of familiarity), immediately shifting the usual balance of sympathies. Although none of the characters are especially well developed, there's competent acting all round and the result is as solid as most contemporary Japanese genre work but with the US trappings to add a bit of extra flavour.

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It begins with Christine Woods as Murphy, a cop investigating the mysterious case of a corpse that seems to have been heavily charred or even petrified yet with no signs of concomitant damage in the surrounding area. Things become stranger still when it's identified as the body of an unassuming woman who lived quietly with her mother and daughter and seemed to have no enemies. Suspecting that the older woman is keeping something secret, Murphy hangs around the home of the bereaved and ends up forming a bond (unnecessarily explained by a clich├ęd loss in her past) with the orphaned teenager, Nori (Karen Fukuhara). It doesn't take her long to realise there there's something really strange about the girl, something overtly supernatural, but asking deep questions about that sort of thing doesn't seem to be her forte. Instead, she determines to help Nori discover the truth behind her mother's untimely end.

Although the story is simple (beyond its merging of two different sets of genre conventions), it's stylishly presented. There are some nicely observed scenes early on when Nori is becoming aware of Murphy's shortcomings but has no-one else to turn to. Pop star Miyavi turns up as a mysterious biker who may hold the key to Nori's past in scenes bound to appeal to his fans. There's much musing on the nature of family and responsibility, and there's a supernatural showdown which, whilst it doesn't quite involve people jumping up in the air and changing shape as the background changes colour, uses only slightly more subtle CGI techniques to deliver something similar.

Despite its flaws, this curious little hybrid is bound to intrigue and has enough going on to be worth seeking out by genre fans. US audiences unfamiliar with Japanese cinema will find it pleasingly different from what they're used to yet accessible enough to be a good introduction.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2019
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Stray packshot
A teenager forms an unlikely friendship with a detective. Together they investigate her mother's murder and uncover the supernatural force that threatens her family.

Director: Joe Sill

Writer: JD Dillard

Starring: Karen Fukuhara, Christine Woods, Miyavi, Ross Partridge, Tayako Fischer, Saki Miata

Year: 2019

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US


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