We enter Asako I & II as though already in the middle of a movie, and never really seem to leave. Such is the talent of Hamaguchi Ryusuke that he can appear to resurrect the fortunes of even a film failing so thoroughly as this at any point in its runtime, but he can't resurrect the film entire. It starts in excellent form, loses its focus, then seeks to regain it at a point where all momentum has been sapped from the story, all interest lost, our protagonist merely sketched, apparently abandoned, then shunted into a spotlight she can never hope to command. From such bold beginnings, it's regrettable to witness the film's decline, though the experience is closer to frustration and exhaustion as the minutes langorously whittle away toward the end, Hamaguchi shuffling the story around in circles.
Flashes of inspiration both give purpose and give cause for disappointment. Hamaguchi knows how to form personal style from seemingly nondescript visual resources, and excels at creating vitality and a distinct sense of movement in lively, yet static dialogue scenes that would flummox most other filmmakers. There are too few in Asako I & II, which lingers too long on listless exchanges between taciturn characters, though Higashide Masahiro, in a dual role, is a magnetic presence in even the dullest of passages. Principal among Hamaguchi's skills is a rare spatial awareness regarding the human figures in his compositions, and astuteness in expressing emotion through their body language toward one another; this is utilized well when utilized at all, but too often smothered by the creeping sag that overwhelms this unwieldy, finally tiresome film.
You see, much as Hamaguchi may understand people, so too does Jaime Rosales, and he understands film too. No momentum is lost whatsoever in his sombre, unpredictable drama Petra in spite of its deliberately non-linear structure. Rosales' jumbled chronology isn't just for show, however. It enacts a similar excavation of character to that of any of us making a new acquaintance set to become a key figure in our lives, mimicking reality as a means of anchoring the Spanish family melodrama at the story's centre. It also sets the audience on a consistently surprising, occasionally shocking journey through a most heightened emotional landscape, from quiet ecstasy to simmering agony, all in elemental form, scored to Kristian Eidnes Andersen's plaintive choral soundtrack.
Whether in a near-relentlessly roving camera, selective shot framing or the aforementioned structure, we're constantly being directed during Petra, an experience that can be infuriating when mismanaged, exhilarating when done as Rosales does it. He directs us calmly through fundamental features of life - birth, reproduction, death - allowing each new monumental development to shake that direction organically, that it might find its purpose within the narrative and its place on our journey through it. Hope is undermined and then renewed, characters are discounted and then revived, and the rug is pulled from beneath us on more than one occasion and in more than one way, yet always to sensitive, even corrective effect. We enter Petra in the middle of someone's story, and exit it at the beginning of another story. Gorgeous stuff.
Both Asako I & II and Petra will screen later this month at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.