A married couple finds themselves in a dire financial situation after they lose their restaurant in a fire. The couple determined to run a restaurant again turn to crime. The wife scopes out potential targets and her husband commits marriage fraud. Their victims include 31-year-old office lady Satsuki Tanahashi (Rena Tanaka) who lives with her parents, lonely office lady Reiko Mutsushima (Sawa Suzuki), sinle mom Takiko Kinoshita (Tae Kimura) who takes care of her old father and young son by herself.

Scam drama stays dark throughout.

JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: Miwa Nishikawa’s Dreams for Sale is eminently involving but this is not to say it has an easy, engaging narrative. A complex morality tale that challenges gender definition in Japanese middle-class, all-the-while presenting a universally-recognisable study of blind, ruthless wanting, this bracing, black-hearted riff on how low good people can stoop is itself a work of grand – if occasionally obtuse – ambition.

a subtle but scathing cynicism towards status and success, love and marriage

When their restaurant burns to the ground in a spectacular pre-credit staging, husband Kanya Ichizawa (Sadawo Abe) and wife Satoko (Takako Matsu) are left destitute. The eternally upbeat Satoko takes a chef’s gig far below her standing but where she performs the job with good grace, Kanya is a ruined man, barely crawling out of bed each morning, only rising to numb the memories of his past life with booze.

In a moment of weakness, he beds an old customer, Reiko (Sawa Suzuki), herself at the end of her tether having been paid to stay silent by a dying lover. Satoko is crushed by Kanya’s infidelity but sees an opportunity to regain their wealth and status: scam lonely woman out of their money by setting them up with her husband. The money pours in, as Kanya woos and swindles weightlifter Hitomi (Yuka Ebara), on-the-slide prostitute Kana (Tamae Ando) and divorcee Takiko (Tae Kimura).

Nishikawa explored equally sordid, darkly satirical themes in her far more palatable works Sway (2006) and Dear Doctor (2009). Here, she layers a noir-like thriller structure and requisite femme fatale (however unlikely she appears to be) with social commentary, her methods reflecting a subtle but scathing cynicism towards status and success, love and marriage. Keeping audiences onside when your lead characters are a milquetoast shell-of-a-man and his increasingly ruthless and relentless wife is not always easy for the director, who offers no respite from the film’s chilly view of reality.

A major singing star in her homeland, Matsu dominates the film in a role that subverts the celebrity’s cutie pie public persona; the scene in which Kanya reveals that he understands entirely why Satoko wants to prey upon these forlorn women allows the actress to go very dark for a fleeting moment – and it is utterly convincing. Abe’s Kanya is deliberately shallow and ineffective and the actor does as much with this dimension-free character as allowed by Nishikawa, who keeps a very tight rein on her archetypal qualities.

The 137 minutes are not fully warranted; the circular nature of the scam means details are often repeated for no particular gain and, barring Yuka Ebara’s gentle giant athlete, the victims of the swindle are never fully fleshed out (perhaps indicating Nishikawa’s intolerance for those who seek self-worth via romance). The downbeat ending further reflects the noir trappings of the work and mostly satisfies the director’s aim of warning against material desires as a basis for togetherness. It’s a tough message to impart in a film that teeters between preachy weightiness and blackly-comic farce, but the contemplative tone of Dreams for Sale ultimately ensures a thoughtful viewing experience.