Fly Me to Minami
Japan, 2013, colour, 16:9, 106 mins.
Director: Lin Jiawei 林家威 [Lim Kah Wai].
Pan-Asian drama centred on two couples in Osaka hooks the viewer after a slow start.
East Asia, the present day, mid-Dec. In Hong Kong, fashion magazine editor Sherine (Huang Shuling) is told by her boss Eileen (Guo Hui) to think more commercially. In Osaka, Japan, university graduate Otsuka Tatsuya (Kohashi Kenji), who lives with his elder sister Naomi (Ishimura Tomomi) and mother (Kondo Rieko), goes off for yet another job interview. From the same city, Korean-Japanese air hostess Seol-a (Baek Seol-a) flies to Seoul, where she visits a friend, Min-jun (Gim Yu-hyeon), who’s just broken up with her boyfriend. In Hong Kong, Sherine tells a friend, Kiki (Wu Zhuoxin), that she’s thinking of leaving her job; but then she’s suddenly sent by her boss to spend the year-end period in Osaka and write a feature about Minami, the city’s trendy shopping, eating and entertainment area. At the last moment, Sherine’s photographer, Michael (Shi Minghui), cannot go with her because of his wife’s pregnancy. In Osaka, Sherine’s friend Naomi tries to find a local photographer but they’re all busy; finally she recommends her brother Otsuka Tatsuya, who is a talented amateur – and needs the work. At the same time, Seol-a arrives back in Osaka and gets together with her married lover Shinsuke (Takezai Terunosuke). She demands more and more of his time, and his wife Ayako (Fujima Miho) starts to suspect something. Meanwhile, Sherine and Otsuka Tatsuya end up spending the evening together when Naomi is called away by a friend.
After a big step forward with New World 新世界の夜明け (2011), Malaysian Chinese film-maker Lin Jiawei 林家威 [Lim Kah Wai] finally comes good with his fourth feature, Fly Me to Minami 恋するミナミ, which manages to preserve his individual, somewhat distanced style while still holding an audience’s interest. Again centred on Lin’s adopted home of Osaka, and again set at year’s end, Minami is another study of lost, itinerant souls looking for companionship – but this time with a criss-crossing narrative format and some genuinely likeable characters to draw the viewer in. A couple of archly played scenes recall Lin’s earlier movies; but in general the film breathes a self-assurance that’s new to his work – and in the final scenes manages to pack an old-fashioned emotional punch as well.
In some respects, Minami is like the flip-side of New World – set in a glitzier area of the city and among better-heeled denizens – and also follows its characters through to the end on a purely metaphysical level rather than falling back on a crime story for a finale. Most of all, however, Lin, 39, again shows he’s one of Asia’s few truly trans-national film-makers, here mingling a variety of East Asians (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) with absolute naturalness and no perceptible bias, as well as building convincing relationships between people who hardly speak each other’s tongues. There’s none of the usual awkwardness that afflicts so many bigger-budgeted pan-Asian movies.
The script takes a while to clear its throat and get all the characters in the same place at the same time – Osaka’s trendy eating, shopping and entertainment area of Minami, in the run-up to Christmas. Once done, it focuses on two emotionally needy young women who, in different ways, need to move on: workaholic singleton Sherine, a fashion magazine editor from Hong Kong, and Seol-a, a Korean-Japanese air hostess with a married lover. Sherine handles her loneliness by pouring everything into her work; but a meeting with a younger Japanese guy opens up emotional doors for both of them, if they’re prepared to go through. Seol-a, on the other hand, funnels all her emotions into a relationship that obviously has no long-term future – her lover has a nice wife and kid, to whom he’s devoted – but she adamantly hangs on to her illusions.
As the two women’s paths keep almost crossing during the Christmas/New Year period, the movie builds up two contrasting relationships: the will-they/won’t-they between professional media type Sherine and the boyish Tatsuya, and the loving but essentially doomed relationship between Seol-a and her languidly duplicitous lover Shinsuke. The weakness in the second is that there’s no reason given for Shinsuke to be having an extra-marital affaire, unless his relationship with Seol-a is purely sexual and largely driven by her rather than by him. (Both, it’s very vaguely hinted, may be true.) In any event, narratively it’s a much less interesting relationship than the gradually blooming one between Sherine and Tatsuya – a bond that turns into a real cliffhanger at the end, capped by a charming, almost off-hand coda.
In her first leading tole in a feature, former Miss Malaysia Huang Shuling 黄淑玲, now 34, acquits herself pretty well, building an intriguing, lightly comic chemistry with Kohashi Kenji 小桥贤儿 as the younger, less confident man. Most importantly, by going with his own film’s flow Lin creates a situation in which the audience actually wants the pair to get together. Also in her first leading film role, South Korean actress Baek Seol-a 백설아, 29, manages to convey her character’s devotion/frustration with very little help from Takezai Terunosuke 竹财辉之助, here rather blank as her married lover.
Production credits are fine for an obviously modestly budgeted indie production, with d.p. Kato Tetsuhiro 加藤哲宏 capturing the glossy, touristy side of Minami (and the sterile lines of Osaka’s Kansai airport) as professionally as he caught the city’s seedier side in New World. Cinematography in Hong Kong and Seoul is equally natural, and editing by Lin himself is generally tight.
Presented by Duckbill Entertainment (JP). Produced by Cinema Drifters (JP).
Script: Lin Jiawei [Lim Kah Wai], Itami Aki. Photography: Kato Tetsuhiro. Editing: Lin Jiawei [Lim Kah Wai]. Music: none. Art direction: Shiokawa Setsuko. Costumes: Usui Fuminori. Sound: Yamashita Aya.
Cast: Huang Shuling (Sherine), Baek Seol-a (Seol-a), Kohashi Kenji (Otsuka Tatsuya), Takezai Terunosuke (Shinsuke), Fujima Miho (Ayako, Shinsuke’s wife), Ishimura Tomomi (Naomi, Otsuka Tatsuya’s sister), Guo Hui [Crystal Black] (Eileen), Shi Minghui [Phil Shek] (Michael, fashion photographer), Wu Zhuoxin [Apple Ng] (Kiki), Gim Yu-hyeon (Min-jun), Oyama Yuzuki (Kenichi), Kondo Rieko (Otsuka Tatsuya’s mother).
Premiere: Osaka Asian Film Festival (Competition), 16 Mar 2013.
Release: Japan, 21 Dec 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 24 Jul 2013.)