Key of Life
Details: 128 mins, Japan,
Synopsis: Sakurai (Masato Sakai) is an aspiring actor who becomes frustrated with his life. Sakurai then decides to kill himself, but before committing suicide Sakurai heads off to a public bathhouse. At the bathhouse, Sakurai then witnesses a man named Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) collapse and lose his memory in front of Sakurai. On a sudden whim, Sakurai switches locker keys with Kondo and pretends to be Kondo. Sakurai soon finds himself in trouble with the yakuza...
Clever, pacy comedy goes the distance.
manages to surprise from start to finish
JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: Japanese comedy writer-director Kenji Uchida, who garnered a handful of minor prizes at Cannes with his 2005 debut, A Stranger of Mine, has with his third feature delivered an entirely fresh take on the time-worn themes of identity swapping and amnesia.
Key of Life is an ingeniously scripted deadpan comedy, which despite an overly deliberate pace, manages to surprise from start to finish. Little wonder it won the best screenplay prize at Shanghai Film Festival.
The film starts its crafty wrong-footing of the viewer right from the opening scene, which gives the impression of setting us up for a quirky rom-com. Here Kanae (Ryoko Hirosue), an anally retentive publishing house editor, announces to her team that she’s planning to get married, before revealing unabashedly that she doesn’t have a groom in mind. She’s leaving herself two months to find the right guy – the wedding day already marked in her diary.
For many filmmakers this would be the cue to start working through a list of wacky dates with male strangers, but Key of Life throws a spanner in the works by leaping towards the terrain of a crime thriller with the depiction of a contract killer, Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa), going about his brutal work.
From this description most readers will already guess where this is going – the hit-man and the editor are destined to start dating. What isn’t so obvious is the unusual route they take to get there. Because from here we meet what turns out to be the third of the film’s trio of major characters. This impoverished young man, Takeshi (Masato Sakei), has just failed to successfully hang himself in his down-at-heel apartment. Heading to a bath house to freshen up, he witnesses an accident caused by an errant bar of soap.
The unconscious victim (whom we already recognise as the killer Kondo) is taken to hospital where he awakes to find he’s lost his memory. Lucky for Takeshi, who’s already pocketed the guy’s locker key and helped himself to his up-market wheels. After finding out the owner is suffering from amnesia, Takeshi moves into the assassin’s luxury apartment – little suspecting the deadliness of the world into which he has walked.
From here we’re nicely set up for a comedy where the gangland killer reveals some unexpected nice guy instincts, and the angst-ridden youth (who turns out to be an out of work actor) is soon embroiled in the criminal underworld – both plot strands woven into Kanae’s quest for a husband in ways too complex to go into here.
The theme of acting and assumed identity get a thorough working over, especially when the amnesiac hood, who now believes he’s Takeshi, starts to turn up for the young man’s jobs as a film extra and finds he’s picked to play a criminal on account of his hard man looks. Sakai and Kagawa each handle their personality transformation with relish, though it’s the latter who extracts the most comic mileage.
With nobody who they appear to be, there’s plenty of room for surprising revelations, comic misunderstandings and farcical complications, all played out in deadpan style.
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