Asian Pop-Up Cinema Closes with ROUND TRIP HEART
For the past three months, the Chicago area has been treated to the semi-annual Asian Pop-Up Cinema Below, showcasing twelve films (in their original languages with English subtitles) from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, with many of them followed by Q&A with filmmakers. Some of these films have been the very best of the year. I mentioned the series back in September when the series kicked off and now we have the closing taking place at 4pm tomorrow at the Wilmette Theatre, just north of Chicago. The closing night film is “Round Trip Heart” an entertaining character-driven comedy written and directed by Yuki Tanada, who will be in attendance to introduce the film and discuss it afterwards with the audience.
Tanada studied theater in high school and filmmaking at the Image Forum Institute of the Moving Image in Tokyo. She thought of giving up her dream to become a director, but was inspired by Jaco Van Dormael’s 1991 drama “Toto the Hero” to continue. In 2000, she made her directorial debut with a film she wrote called “Moru”, which she also starred in. In 2008, she released the road movie “One Million Yen Girl” that earned critical acclaim. After a four-year break from film director to write fiction and direct for television, she returned to the big screen in 2010 with the coming-of-age drama “The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky”, then followed that with “Mourning Recipe” in 2013.
Her latest, “Round Trip Heart”, was released last year and it follows 26-year-old Hachiko Hojo (Yuko Oshima), who works as a push-cart server who offers food and drinks (coffee and ice cream seems to be a favorite) to passengers on a romance express train with a cheery disposition. A what? That’s right. There are such things as romance car trains in Japan, apparently, and while I’d be afraid to see how such a concept would play out in America, I could see the potential for blossoming and rekindling a couple’s love on a scenic round-trip train tour. Hachiko is good at her job, helpful to her bumbling colleague (Yoshimi Nozaki) and is quite tolerant considering how customers can be in the food service business, but there is a sadness in her eyes that she tries to suppress on the job. Her ordinary work routine is derailed one particular day when she catches a passenger stealing a sandwich from her cart. She calls him out on it, but he makes a scene, stating he had planned to pay for it. When the train arrives at Hakone, Hachiko hands the thief to authorities, but the wily passenger (she calls “Ossan” or Old Man, event though he’s in his mid-forties) takes off in an attempt to escape. Frustrated, Hachiko runs after the unsuspecting shoplifter, catching up to him as they both watch her train depart to its next destination.
With her job literally running away from her, Hachiko is left in the company of this Old Man, who she later learns is named Sakuraba (Kaji Ohkura), a movie producer and a failed one at that. The tall and somewhat goofy passenger is much more extroverted and outspoken then the withdrawn and quiet Hachiko. Abandoned in the picturesque countryside, with Mt. Fuji looming on the horizon, the pursuer and the pursued relent and make the most of each other’s company. Hachiko spends the day reluctantly sharing information about her life to an interested, somewhat nosey, Sakuraba, who finds a bittersweet letter Hachiko drops that is revealed to be from her mother, suggesting that she might commit suicide.
If this were an American film by a major Hollywood studio, if would be filled with sexual innuendos, convenient misunderstandings and obvious bits of familiar comedy – in other words, a typical rom-com. Tanada cares two much for the two characters in “Round Trip Heart” to allow them to fall to the wayside to satisfy typical genre conventions. Her characterization of Hachiko and Sakuraba remind us that there’s always more going on internally and sometimes it just takes getting away from routine surroundings to find the emotions and feelings rise to the surface. As the story progresses, there are images and thoughts that trigger Hachiko to flashback to her childhood with her single outgoing mother (Megumi Nishimuta), who had a habit of going through multiple boyfriends and engaging in inebriated karaoke. We also learn how insecure and devastated Sakuraba is to admit that the movies he’s produced have been such utter bombs. Tanada is more concerned with peeling back the layers of these two, in order to remind viewers that we’re often quite alike regardless of our occupation, background or economic status.
The chemistry between the two characters is not what you’d expect to see in movies. Neither of them are really attracted to one another – although Sakuraba is the kind of guy open to any possibility – and despite being complete opposites, Oshima and Okura (both familiar faces in Japanese TV) do a fine job portraying two characters who slowly let the other in and find some common ground and excel at conveying both comedic and vulnerable characters who just needs some time away from their lives. We learn that Hachiko and her mother took a family trip to Hakone long ago and that Sakuraba had previously toured the area location scouting for a movie. The two wind up renting bicycles for leisure and a car in hopes of possibly finding her Hachiko’s mother (if Tanada’s screenplay has any flaws, it’s how this storyline doesn’t really go anywhere) and unintentionally wind up overnight at a hotel room before they can catch another train the next morning.
There’s a bit of a travelogue feel to “Round Trip Heart”, which is something I always welcome. I kind of wish that more of the movie took place on the train car, but I understand the need for these characters to get out of their normal routine. I found myself so interested in this idea of a Romance Car that I did a little research and learned that the Odayku Romance Car was an express train that debuted in 1957, which would travel between Tokyo and Hakone, a mountain resort surrounded by villages near Mt. Fuji and Lake Ashi, a place that has drawn tourists for generations. I wonder if it’s required that you board as a couple, because it even sounds inviting for a solo trip with a good book.
There is train riding parallels here to real life in regards to how staying on track in life may prevent us from experiencing spontaneity and appreciating new viewpoints. There’s also a confident balance of light-heartedness and relatable emotions like regret and sadness. Perhaps unintentionally, “Round Trip Heart” serves as a reminder that sometimes it’s okay to talk to strangers.
TICKETS for the individual screenings and post-film Q & A sessions are $7 to $25 each. Special discounts for students, seniors and group of 10 + available for select films. Advance sales on line are available http://www.asianpopupcinema.org/tickets or http://www.wilmettetheatre.com. All programs are subject to change. All tickets sales are final, non-exchangeable and non-refundable. Wilmette Theatre is located at 1122 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL.
More info: http://www.asianpopupcinema.org/buy-tickets
ABOUT ASIAN POP-UP CINEMA
Asian Pop-Up Cinema, a semi-annual Asian Film Festival, is the brain child of Sophia Wong Boccio, founder of SOPHIA’S CHOICE, a one-year old Chicago-based 501 C (3) not-for-profit with the mission of cultivating interest in Asian culture through film; connecting individuals in the film industry for professional and educational exchanges; and promoting Chicago as a premiere destination for Asian filmmakers. More info: http://www.asianpopupcinema.org
JAPAN FOCUS is supported in part by Japan Foundation of New York, The Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago and BMO Harris Bank in Chicago.