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Friday, September 30, 2011

THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE -- DVD review by porfle

Man hates Japan, goes to Japan, learns to love Japan.  That's the basic plotline but there's more to this story in THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE (2009), writer-director Aaron Woolfolk's semi-autobiographical tale that's slow and predictable but ultimately as warm and comfortable as a pair of old shoes.

Retired photographer Daniel Holder (Bennet Guillory), still bitter about the way his father was tortured to death in a Japanese POW camp during WWII, disowns his artist son Mickey (Victor Grant) for hooking up with Noriko (Saki Takaoka) and leaving San Francisco to teach English in Japan.  When Mickey is killed in a motorcycle accident, guilt-ridden Daniel travels there to take back all of Mickey's paintings from the people he's given them to, alienating and offending everyone he meets. 

I've never been to Japan, but if all its citizens are this impossibly nice and polite then everyone should move there.  By contrast, Daniel, who's at least a head taller than everyone else, is unbearably rude and intimidating, and I felt embarrassed by his crass behavior toward his hosts from the local Education Office out of which Mickey worked.  Kindly Ms. Hara (Misa Shimizu) takes him to the school where the students have put up a photo memorial to Mickey, and Daniel, while moved, nevertheless plucks his son's centerpiece painting (a gift to the school) from the wall and makes off with it.

We know, of course, that Daniel will eventually make a one-eighty in his surly, unforgiving attitude--especially when he finally starts to see the negative effects his actions are having on other people, and how he, as a black man, is acting out some of the same prejudices he's suffered himself--but getting there is a long and very deliberately paced process.  A major breakthrough comes when he tracks down the widowed Noriko and shares her grief over the loss of his son while making a discovery that is probably the film's one plot point which qualifies as a surprise. 

The gradual softening of Daniel's demeanor makes the film more enjoyable to watch from that point forward, with some poignant emotional moments that are subtly evoked by director Woolfolk despite the sometimes overly-insistent musical score.  A major asset is Bennet Guillory's refusal to overact or try too hard to sell his character's anger and grief, making it all the more effective when he does go for those heartfelt moments. 

Misa Shimizu as Ms. Hara and Saki Takaoka as Noriku also give depth and nuance to their performances.  In a smaller role as Daniel's brother Joseph, executive producer Danny Glover adds his own venerable presence to the film (although much less so than the ads would have us believe--this show belongs to Guillory and his female co-stars all the way).   

Woolfolk, who based much of Mickey's character on his own experiences as an African-American teacher in Japan, was inspired by that country's slow-paced, pastoral films of the 50s and gives THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE a simple, often elegant look with good use of both city and rural locations.  Some humor is derived from Daniel's culture-shock reaction to various foods and customs and the way he seems shoehorned into his tiny apartment.  Saita Nakayama (pop singer Misono), a hyperkinetic young secretary who loves American culture, is the one overtly comedic aspect of the film and, although cute, is best appreciated when not onscreen.

The Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack from Funimation and Eleven Arts is in 16:9 widescreen with an English/Japanese soundtrack in Dolby 5.1 surround (Japanese dialogue is subtitled in English).  Extras include a making-of featurette, cast and staff interviews, and trailers of other Funimation releases.  Woolfolk's commentary is in-depth and very personal.

One of the film's more effective scenes comes when Daniel visits a small art gallery proudly displaying Mickey's work in a show called "Japan Through the Eyes of Foreigners."  That title aptly describes THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE, with Woolfolk offering a fresh perspective that's an aesthetically-pleasing synthesis of both Japanese and American films.  The languid pace and lack of sledgehammer dramatics will put off some viewers, while others will find the low-key storytelling and lush visuals as enticing as a lazy stroll through the Japanese countryside.

Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD combo at

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