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Think of it as 'Brief Encounter', but with criminals
To the accompaniment of an instantly memorable score that sounds a little like something Dave Grusin might have conjured up from the same early 70's period, an attractive middle-aged woman (Keiko Kishi, Robert Mitchum's love in 'The Yakuza') sits alone on a park bench watching the world go by - children at play, couples arm in arm strolling past. At the end of the film we'll come back to this scene & understand its significance but after this bewitching opening we're on a train journey along the coast of snowy, northern Japan. Onboard is the mysterious woman we've just seen in the park. A young man joins the train & tries to engage her in conversation. It transpires that the woman is on the way to visit the grave of her recently deceased mother. Accompanying her is a stern faced older woman whom she enigmatically refers to as 'My guardian.' When two cops bring a handcuffed prisoner on board & we flashback to a shot of Keiko herself in handcuffs we begin to get a sense of what's going on. But there's more than one offender here & as attraction between the pair begins to grow the stage is set for a tragedy that will take us back to that sad & lonely woman in the park.
This largely train set romantic thriller, famous in Japan if largely unknown outside of it, won't win over the impatient viewer but for those who can cope with films that emphasise character & mood over plot, this melancholy, consistently engrossing study of two societal outcasts who connect builds to a knockout emotional punch & offers the pleasure of two terrific performances. Much of the appeal is due to Keiko Kishi's fabulous performance as the woman with a secret. Watching a smile flit across her face only to see it replaced almost instantly by one of sadness, to watch the young man (Hagiwara Kenichi, excellent) in his awkward, boyish enthusiasm trying to win her over, or to see her struggle with his offer of escape when their train is halted by a landslide, is both compelling & heartbreaking.
Although performance-wise the film is basically a two-hander there's notable support from Yoshie Minami in a near wordless turn as Keiko's guardian, one who watches the growing friendship between the young man & her charge with silent disapproval.
The Rendezvous is greatly aided by Saito Koichi's direction, a loose limbed, New Wave-ish approach that utilises long takes in real locations, hand-held camera, jump-cuts, what looks like lots of sequences shot in low/natural light & often drops the accompanying sound in favour of the score. The snowy locations are an appropriately bleak setting. The mood here is not unlike Jean-Pierre Melville at his most fatalistic & melancholy. Indeed, this Japanese film has a distinctly European vibe. Of special note is the wonderful score by Miagawa Yasushi. A great pity there's no soundtrack release because if more movie music fans were aware of Yasushi's score, presented here in a variety of arrangements from lushly emotional to trendy urban chic, they'd be snapping it up. It's a very memorable melody.
'The Rendezvous' really is the kind of film Criterion or Masters of Cinema should pick up. No doubt they've been trying. Perhaps it's the inevitable 'rights issues'? At any rate, if you can find it (and it's only currently available from Hong Kong suppliers in a scratchy full frame crop with basic English subs) highly recommended. It's not just a sad love story with a wonderful performance from its luminous leading lady, it's downright haunting.
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