Casual TIFF attendees–I consider myself one–can be forgiven for only attempting to score tickets to big, bright Hollywood productions with all-star casts because those premieres typically afford viewers the chance to see famous directors and performers talk shop about their films.
But while it makes sense to try to see a flick with Matt Damon or Emma Stone, it’s never wise to ignore the smaller (and often foreign) films that screen at TIFF.
Small productions are easier to score tickets to and they’re less likely to be found again (unless you manage to get your hands on a region-appropriate DVD from China or Laos or find the film on YouTube). Some gems never get picked up for wide release, so seeing them at a festival is all the more special.
One film that’s worth seeing? The intensely dramatic Birds Without Names (Kanojo ga Sono Na wo Shiranai Toritachi).
The Japanese film, directed by Kazuya Shiraishi (Lost Paradise in Tokyo, The Devil’s Path) is an intense (and often infuriating) look at the vice grip unrequited love has those who cannot (or will not) love themselves.
The film begins with Towako (Yu Aoi) rudely berating a slew of unlucky customer service representatives and her pathetically devoted roommate, Jinji (Sadawo Abe). Towako, a troubled woman in her 30s, makes punching bags out of video store workers, watch repair store receptionists and the aging, working class Jinji because she’s depressed and inexplicably obsessed with a former boyfriend who nearly beat her to death.
Living with Jinji in the apartment he purchased and pays for, Towako spends her days pining for ex-boyfriend Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi)–a man who pimped her out before beating her during a heated argument. In an interesting parallel, Jinji provides for Towako without question or complaint, eagerly cooking all her meals and engaging in rare and one-sided sexual encounters when Towako is in the mood.
When Towako begins an affair with womanizing (and married) watch salesman, Mizushima (Tori Matsuzaka), Jinji attempts to convince Towako that she’s meant to be loved as an equal–not a pawn or mistress.
The irony is apparent, but still subtle.
To make things more difficult, Towako is approached by a police officer who informs her that Kurosaki has been missing since the night that he viciously beat her.
Birds Without Names is, at times, a violent melodrama. Embracing and showcasing extreme situations and overwrought emotions, the film never shies away from the tragic patheticness of its protagonists and their desperation. While the movie is engaging, it could use a trim. Like some other Japanese dramas, it boasts some overlong sequences that bloat the run time and fatigue readers who are already invested in the plot and characters.
That said, the premise is interesting enough to compensate for the less necessary scenes.
Jinji and Towako can be hard to like, but they’re not hard to understand. Sure, they leave us with a lot to unpack, but most people know of someone who excused myriad abuses by measuring them against happy, exciting and erotic moments. Although the situations in the film are extreme, the notions of lust and longing are eternally familiar.
What would you do for what you believe to be true love? What would you forgive?
Birds Without Names poses that question to the audience and does so dramatically–and it works.