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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It may look like just another saccharine love-triangle romance, but
'Hana and Alice' is actually a deceptively tender and subtle paean to
how gorgeous and sweet friendship can be. Although initially we have
two high-school girls, Anne Suzuki and Aoi Yuu, squabble over a hapless
senior, the film isn't really about teen crushes and jealousy. Instead,
as layers of each girl's background and character are peeled away, we
discover a surprising amount of depth and resonance to Hana and Alice's
friendship. The ballet scene is much talked about and fawned over, but
the real highlight for me was where we find out that Hana was in fact a
near-autistic child, shunning the outer world from her flower house,
until Alice came along and enticed her out into the world. This scene
increases the emotional strength of both the film and the girls'
relationship exponentially, and turns the movie from merely
entertaining into truly touching.
Director Shunji Iwai once again establishes a particularly delectable mood - as only he can - and has the guts to carry it all the way. Although most of the press and public attention in the Far East focused on the freshness of Aoi Yuu, it is the former child actor Suzuki Anne who gives a performance of veritable subtlety, so nuanced and superbly mannered that you almost don't notice it until you give it a thought. She has the less flashy and more mundane role of the two, yet there isn't one moment where she's caught acting, something that sadly can't be said for Yuu. To think that Suzuki has just turned 18 - what a career she has in store for us.
Although somewhat long and dragging in places (you can only enjoy so many shots of young girls in tights dancing - no, hang on...) 'Hana and Alice' is a rare instance where one is allowed a flight of fancy without the attendant guilt, and in which friendship is explored with affection not angst. Don't let the fluffy romance tag fool you: this is a film which makes you nostalgic for those dreary days back in youth when you had your best friend walk alongside you on the way to school and didn't realize how special or fleeting it was.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
No, not Mr. Spielberg's outfit, which incidentally also has my high regards. I'm talking here about the somewhat dreamy quality (entirely complimentarily meant) of this recent work of Japanese director Shunji Iwai, whom some describe as a 'poetic' director.
As the title suggests, this is a story about two girls, Hana ('Flower') and Alice. Not suggested by the title, however, is the asymmetry this is Alice's story, even though Hana has an important part to play too.
It may seem slightly odd that director Iwai should take so long at the beginning of the film in taking us along the inseparable pair's inconsequential daydreaming wanderings. The length of this opening sequence, however, is of crucial significance in underscoring the metamorphosis in their relationship. As we soon find out, these two a going through the transition from junior high to high school. After this opening sequence, the two are rarely seen together, until towards the end of this 135 minute film. As Hana says to Alice on the phone, they are in high school now and should not be like a pair of twins anymore. While the motivation for her to say that is actually to spend more time with her new-found boyfriend, there's more truth to what she said than she realizes.
Played by slightly chubby Anne Suzuki (but not quite as chubby as she was in 'Returner'), Hana tricks shy Masashi Miyamoto into believing that he has amnesia and that she is his girlfriend. Other than the typical persona of a playful teenager, we do not see very much of Hana's character until quite some time later. Of her family we also know little, except for an ordinary middle class mother who is not embarrassed to walk around in underwear in front of her daughter's teenage boyfriend (a little playfulness on the part of director Iwai, as seen throughout the film).
The focus now turns to Alice and we are taken into the layers of her character. After seeing her somewhat laid back and timid disposition at a talent scout interview, we learn about the family that must have played a large part in shaping her character. We first saw her tempremental mother, the only other member of her household, who introduces her as 'the girl next door' to her boyfriend when they run into her by chance. Most poignant, however, is a day she spends with her father, a regular but infrequent event. In his thoughtful, sensitive touch, director Iwai shows us how Alice is cool to his father in the beginning, but gradually warms up during the course of the day they spend together in various picturesque part of Tokyo including, I believe, the Meiji Shrine.
The poignancy is in that while the father, while obviously caring, cannot empathize with the teenage girl's yearning for paternal love. With tears in her eyes, as the door of the train is closing, Alice whispers 'Father, I love you', to which he replies with a polite, kindly smile, 'You should be saying 'goodbye', undoubtedly well meant as an instruction of Japanese etiquette.
While the romance Hana longs for with Miyamoto does not blossom (although there is beautiful flower in abundance anywhere she appears), an unexpected (to her only, certainly not to the audience) turn of events leads to Alice being asked by Hana to play the role of Miyamoto's ex-girl friend. As the intriguing triangle develops, we see interaction between the two girls again, as well as some tender, affectionate scenes with Alice and Miyamoto.
This, then, is essentially the plot. But why dreamworks? In one way or another, the three main characters are going through a dream. By the very fact that he is living through the illusion that he has amnesia, the somewhat enigmatic and unexpressive Miyamoto can be said to be really having amnesia, of forgetting something that never was. He talks to Hana about the very dreams that he has but in the end, it mysterious comes out that he is aware of what's going on all along. Iwai thrives on these mental tricks. Hana is the creator of Miyamoto's dream, as well as her own, a teenage girl's romantic infatuation. At the end, she awakes to a new level of maturity, and the restoration of her friendship with Alice, appropriately elevated. Through the masquerade she has been forced into by her best friend, Alice breaks out of her dreamy cocoon, discovering some of her own delicate feelings as well as gaining her confidence that soars in her triumphant ballet performance at the crucial interview.
The visual images throughout the film carry the hallmark of Iwai. We see splendorous scenes of blossom fields with crisp clarity as well as mystic out-focused scenes of dreamy landscape. We see abrupt jump cuts in succession, as well as wondering languid shots. We see human object framed in endless varieties. Most remembered is the sequence on the group of girls posing at the end of the ballet school, with the still pictures eventually finding their way into a photo exhibition which plays a pivotal role in eventually mending the rift between the two girls. The music, mainly alternating between piano and strings, is equally attention demanding, if not more so. It would almost be considered distracting had it not been so beautiful. As the audience, you somehow just have to develop the capacity to take in music and vision, both.
Last words? This is a film worth seeing again, and again, and again.
2 teenage girls who are best friends are into the same boy ... Coming from Hollywood such a movie would be shallow for sure, in the style of numerous other high school comedies. Japanese director Shunji Iwai, however, managed to make a movie out of this material which has a lot of depth, a movie that is rich of subtle, moving moments. Rather than showing a simple love story, the focus of the movie is clearly the two girls and their friendship, and how it is being put on the test. Hana and Alice are simply adoring when they quickly come up with another hilarious lie to back up each others made up stories. On the other hand, their love interest is slow and passive most of the time, it seems like he is sleepwalking at times. Unlike Hollywood movies it's a lot about the unsaid, and be prepared that not everything is explained. The film never becomes sentimental nor too heavy, because the drama is lightened up with quite a bit of humor. A very watchable movie indeed ...
From the dark world of junior high school boys in "All about Lily
Chou-chou", Iwai has shifted to the lighter world of two high school
Hana and Alice are best friends who do everything together. Alice is the leader of the pair, so it is no surprise when Hana follows her on an early morning expedition to the train station where Alice's latest crush gets the train in to school. Alice soon tires of her crush, but Hana meanwhile has fallen for the crush's "younger brother" Miyamoto and continues the trek to the station by herself.
When the two matriculate at the high school that Miyamoto already attends, Hana enters the rakugo (traditional comedic storytelling) club of which Miyamoto is one of two members. And when one day Miyamoto takes a nasty blow to the head she enters into a crazy scheme to get him to fall in love with her.
Alice, meanwhile, has troubles of her own dealing with a flighty mother, a father she rarely sees, and trying to find herself through a series of acting and modeling auditions after being scouted on the streets of Tokyo. And when she gets roped in to Hana's scheme she finds that Miyamoto is falling for her instead, and her relationship with Hana may be threatened.
The two main characters are real and appealing, neither is one-dimensional. Miyamoto is less interesting, and his motivation less clear. The visuals, as usual, are beautiful especially the frozen fields, cherry blossom lanes, and the ballet scenes. Music always plays an important part in Iwai films (especially Swallowtail and Lily Chou-chou), and the music in this one is very good (composed this time by Iwai himself)... but there are points where it is hard to tell which is the focus, the music or the story. Sometimes it seems that the movie is there to complement the music, and not the other way around.
Also the story has a tendency to wander, and may seem long to someone looking for a straight forward love/friendship story.
Personally I enjoyed the film... and found it got better on repeated viewings... I found Aoi Yu and Suzuki Anne very easy to relate to, recalling the confusion, insecurities, etc of high school days. It is one of Iwai's more comedic pieces, and at the same time subtly moving. It was not overly simplistic or clear cut. And I especially enjoyed Aoi's ballet solo toward the end of the film (both for the solo itself and it's place in the story) I think that fans of Iwai's style will enjoy it.
Keep an eye out for the many cameos (Hirosue Ryoko (of ARITA), Osawa Takao (of Lily Chou-chou), Ito Ayumi (of Swallowtail and Lily Chou-chou)... Abe Hiroshi, Yoshioka Hidetaka (voice only)... and many others)
In recent years, Japanese director Shunji Iwai has become the dark poet
of adolescence, exhibiting a profound insight into how teenagers think
and act, capturing the rhythms of their speech and depicting their not
always smooth transitions from being a child to becoming an adult.
Iwai's bleak 2001 film All About Lily Chou Chou dramatized the
isolation and emotional torment that accompanies teenage bullying and
the failure of modern technology to provide an outlet for loneliness.
The polar opposite is Hana and Alice, his 2004 film just released on
DVD, which shows the sweet, perhaps too innocent side of Japanese high
school life without any hint of the turbulence displayed in Lily.
Written and directed by Iwai who also composed the musical score, Hana and Alice is a charming comedy/drama of friendship and conflict between two junior high school girls who fall for the same boy, depicting their gradually developing ability to handle complex emotional situations without the typical coming-of-age clichés. Originally filmed as three shorts for a candy commercial, Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) are fifteen year old high school students and best friends. Alice is the more free-spirited and creative of the two, while Hana is more reserved but still quite playful. The two go to school each morning on the train, attend the same ballet classes, and are virtually inseparable.
On the train, they both notice a handsome student, Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), traveling with a tall American-looking boy who they guess is his older brother. Hana, pursuing her new interest, joins the school drama club where Miyamoto just happens to be a member. Following him home after school, Hana watches in horror as Miyamoto, his head buried deep in a book and seemingly oblivious to the world around him, walks headfirst into a garage door and is knocked unconscious. Seizing the opportunity after coming to his aid, she tells him that his accident has caused him to forget that she is his girlfriend. She solicits Alice's help in pretending to be his ex-girl friend but the more convoluted the lies become, the more strain is put on the girls' relationship, especially when Alice develops strong romantic feelings for Miyamoto.
Hana and Alice is a beautifully filmed and often very funny film that features gorgeous cinematography by the late Noburu Shinoda, magnificent music and ballet sequences, and brilliant performances by Aoi, Suzuki, and Kaku. The film has many memorable moments including an enchanting five-minute ballet sequence, a tearful confession by Hana minutes before she is to go on stage to perform, a glowing photo shoot of the ballet class outside at night, a fight on the beach between the two girls, and Alice's loving visit with her estranged father. While the story is thin and feels stretched over 135 minutes, Iwai's subtle delineation of character and insight into adolescent life makes Hana and Alice a film to cherish.
Iwai's tale of friendship and love among 15-year-olds is a bitter-sweet
affair, joyous and poignant in fragments. It is not a perfect film, but
still imbued with enough of Iwai's visual flair and inventiveness to
raise it above much of what Japan has offered up in the first decade of
the 21st century.
Hana (Anne Suzuki) is inadvertently brought to Ma-kun by her best friend Alice (Yû Aoi). She utilizes an accident to convince clumsy Ma-kun (Tomohiro Kaku) that he has lost his memory and that she is the love of his life. The lie grows out of control, and sucks in the best friend. Alice, meanwhile, has her own troubles to contend with, namely an eccentric mother, disinterested father, and an acting/modeling opportunity that continually misfires.
Like Iwai's 'Love Letter', the essentials of the plot are intricately laid out, but ultimately matter less than the shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene poetry conjured up by camera, light and direction. There is one breathtaking shot in a classroom, when Astro Boy is revealed watching brazenly over a lover's tiff. The manga motif serves to underline the heightened emotions and extreme dramatics of the tale. Similar optical playfulness is employed when Hana watches Ma-kun on the train, seemingly in conversation with his girlfriend. That shot is matched later when we are optically fooled into thinking Ma-kun will kiss Alice. It is this continual ability to surprise and delight that means the 2-hour plus running time, while self-indulgent, manages not to feel too much of an imposition.
There are some wonderful set pieces to celebrate here. Alice's father making a complete mess of gifting his daughter a fountain pen is painful and hilarious. Ditto Hana's mother appearing in her undies before a shell-shocked Ma-kun. A klutzy classmate's photos of the girls in ballet tutus turn out to be magical. These scenes, stagy and contrived in the hands of a lesser mortal, are fluid, vivid and delightful when presented by Iwai.
It is testament to Iwai's genius that a host of A-listers line up for walk-on parts in this film. For example, Hirsohi Abe, used to playing leads, is practically an extra here when he shows up as the boyfriend of Alice's mum. What other living director elicits such reverence? Hana and Alice glows, quite literally. The film captures that vividness of passionate friendships and love first encountered that only the qualia of a 15-year-old knows. Ultimately, the running time is a shade too flabby to count it among Iwai's masterpieces (the plural is deliberate), but this is a subtle, complex film worthy of repeat viewing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It didn't take me too long to realize that Iwai is one the cinematic
epitomes of rich human elaborations, as well as a cultivating virtuoso
and a master of abstract imagery and atmosphere. As an amateur film
maker I couldn't have been more appreciative of the way he combined
subtle expressions with sounds of music that set moods for his
characters in the most distinctive and relating way.
Obviously out of the wide range of movies he did, from the initial look Hana and Alice seemed most linkable to All About Lilly Chou-Chou. In a way it seemed like a new chapter to the original film which took on friendship in a harsh and mesmerizing manner, and more ways than not, Hana and Alice was just what I wanted to see from Iwai.
As we meet the lead characters, nothing seems extraordinary and we get a glimpse of what two friends do on their way to and out of school. Iwai, perfectly capable of story telling without any twisting premises set up and he can go on for hours it seems by simply offering realistic dialogs and gorgeous visuals. Of course when the male character gets introduced the chances of a conflict quickly arise, but the story chooses to shelf Alice for the short time while letting Hana follow Miyamoto as he numbly recites poetry without looking ahead. Really there is no point in me detailing how exactly the trio come about, it's nothing astounding, but entertaining and at times harmlessly humorous.
Other minor but compelling conflicts are planted in both Hana's and Alice's lives, but the building blocks seem more geared toward heightening the love interest of the two leads. In the midst of all the romance and friendly endeavors, Iwai doesn't shy away from creating ambiance as he once again reels into the darkness, similar to what he did in AALCC, but this time around with dove like images of ballerinas dancing and glimmering under a pursuing light. All of this fitting beautifully with the story and underlining his unique style.
Obviously equal emphasis is put on how Hana and Alice mature with time and since the film is rather long, sufficient time is given for that to convey albeit through some events that might seem a bit filler to those unaccustomed to Iwai's style. Considering how young the actors are their delivery was perfect and they were able to pull me right in as I developed a genuine fascination for what they were going through. However, as the film was nearing the end, the romance slowly deflated. The resolution with Miyamoto was carried out abruptly toward the end. Understandably so, it seemed like his sole purpose was to strengthen the bond and importance of Hana's and Alice's friendship, but not so much to make the truly worthwhile romantic impact that the film was using as its backbone the entire time. Again, that's something that was purposely articulated and may not please all.
Some might find such closure to be a bit inadequate, others might find Hana and Alice's reunion after a minor struggle with love to be enchanting and perfectly satisfying. I got pleasantly stranded right in between, as this film was able to hit some strong marks with great acting and Iwai's superb visuals. Definitely an easy recommendation to the fans of the director and alike.
"Hana & Alice" began as a series of shorts to promote Nestle's Kit-Kat
candy bars. Through the genius of director Shunji Iwai, this evolved
into not just a feature film but a darned profound one. In the DVD
features he talks about how much of the movie was improvised, but it
doesn't show. The end result is a very thoughtful, seemingly
carefully-planned, poetic view of friendship, memories, and our
individual yearnings for things that are out of our grasp.
The plot itself is very cute and interesting: a girl conspires to snatch a boyfriend by convincing the boy that he has amnesia and is in love with her. He's just dense enough to fall for it. But things get tricky when he starts asking questions, causing the girl to enlist the help of her best friend in deceiving him. It's a great comedy of Shakespearean proportions, but what makes it particularly fun to watch is the gorgeous way in which it's told.
If you're unfamiliar with the works of Shunji Iwai, this is a great place to start. He is a great, artistic director who does not necessarily get bogged down in poetry beyond the realm of mere mortals such as us. In other words, he has a unique visionary style that's not pretentious or overly "experimental". If I were to sum up his style in one sentence, it would be that he allows the scene to speak for itself without too many camera theatrics. You can expect to see long scenes without disruptive cuts, without much camera motion or with a simple, graceful, linear camera movement following the actors rather than jumpy "MTv editing". This is actually an approach used by several great Japanese directors I've seen, like Hideaki Anno ("Ritual") and Takeshi Kitano ("Fireworks", "Kikujoro") and perhaps it is derived from the master Kurosawa himself.
Something else worth noting is that the director composed all the music himself, furthering the idea that the presentation we get is very lucid and consistent with itself. The music compliments each scene as if telling the story, as opposed to background filler.
While the plot may seem straightforward, there's actually quite a lot of complexity under the surface. Each character is driven by some inner yearning, and their actions are not necessarily clear until you discover what drives each person. Thus, things remain unpredictable until the end, when you get a chance to digest why each person is the way they are.
There's fantastic acting all around, and both Anne Suzuki ("Hana") and Yû Aoi ("Alice") get a chance to shine. Hana's moment is in a powerful monologue near the end, while Alice's moment is in a gorgeous ballet routine which will stun you into silence.
Much like German director Wim Wenders' film "Lisbon Story" which began as a promotional spot for the city of Lisbon yet evolved into a poetic masterpiece, Shunji Iwai's "Hana & Alice" is just about the best candy bar commercial you'll ever see in your life.
The base layer here is teenage romance tweaked a little to frame
episodes of ordinary life. Two schoolgirls fall in love with an aloof
boy who believes he suffers from amnesia.
Annotating this is Celine and Julie Go Boating, which was about two girls embarking upon dreamlike adventure and mischief around modern Paris. What was so remarkable about it were precisely the elusive controls: the film didn't give out that we were, in fact, daydreaming until we were too far in to know exactly where. The clue was already laid out in the first scene, a cat of mysterious eyes and a peculiar chase through empty streets.
So you will have to pay attention to the opening scenes of Iwai's film, echoing this. Once again a chase in and out of subway cars as giggly play between the two girls. The other clue is obvious enough: Alice.
This layer borrows Rivette's whimsical light structure. Roles, guises, fiction, synchronous games about the fabrication of narratives, in our case centered at this boy who remembers nothing, is empty space, a blank stage, and the plays the girls assemble around him. He's told he was in love with one, then both. They both act parts, fashion entire pasts and emotions.
So love as this game of fiction, and getting to allow to be seduced by an image. This is excellent work, and in how it's subtly acknowledged inside the film: one girl signs up for a drama class, and has in fact done so to be close to the boy, himself an actor, the other is randomly approached on the street to model for TV commercials - and this may well reference Mikio Naruse's wonderful Street without Return from '34.
So the third layer is how the play is going to be resolved on a level behind the base narrative of ordinary life, and into the stage where love is the heightened game of duplicity.
One ploy is simple enough, opening day for the school play both girl and boy were rehearsing and a near-perfect rendition of the mechanisms that give rise to images: out on the stage performance, roles, fiction consumed as real, and backstage the internal machinations of tortured soul. The other is a little more intricate because of how unassuming: Alice auditions for a part in TV commercial.
Now so far this is no different than a French film. Notice what Iwai does, an extra layer that is deeply Japanese. Now the Japanese idea of high beauty and by extension performance, what is often perceived as quaint reticence, is formless heart expressed in visible form. Meditation.
But even a patriarch of Chan like Hongren could not so simply gauge his pupils' inner heart when the time came to decide for a succesor. What he asked instead, was that they write poems on a wall about it. This is a frequent practice in Buddhism. Painting a cycle will do, an 'ensho' meaning awareness. The hand will tell.
Now all through the film Hana has secretly contrived to cling to her object of desire, has lied and deceived. But when it comes to expressing inner self, we note that she is, in fact, a bad actress. Iwai intercuts her melodramatic reactions backstage with the actor's mock-mannerisms out on the stage. The auditorium is empty when she finally gets out for her part.
On the other hand Alice. She has been part of the ploy but with a certain affection for the part and with genuine feelings. So much so that it slipped from her, a bad actress in terms of the conventional drama of the world. We trust however that even though the image is false, she's moved to it truthfully. Her audition is to play an image on a screen. Instead the director decides on a whim that he wants her to do a ballet dance as per her resume, and in a short skirt, an almost humiliating prospect. What does she do? Channeling true self into the thing, she amazes with her skills.
So what do we get, between these two girls? Flowers in the sky, Hana meaning flower, reflecting Zen Master Dogen's notions of illusory mind images.
And on the other hand, the subtlest difference. Emptiness in full bloom. Or in the words of Dogen: being one with just this, while being free from just this.
Something to meditate upon.
After the dark world of _All About Lily Chou Chou_ in which junior high
kids are involved in prostitution, extortion, and murder, Iwai returns
with _Hana and Alice_, a film that brings the audience to the tried and
true theme of the love triangle. This time involving the young trio of
Hana, Alice, and Masashi.
The story begins with the friends Hana, acted by Suzuki Anne, _Returner_, _9 Souls_, and Alice, Aoi Yu, _All About Lily Chou Chou_, _Harmful Insect_, crossing frozen fields to a distant train station. There, Alice shows Hana the object of her affection: a tall Japanese-American. The two girls ride the the train many times. Even taking secret photographs of biracial young man and a younger student who they assume is his half-brother.
However, eventually, Alice's crush is gone and only the younger man, whose nose is always in a book, rides the train. Alice is heartbroken, But Hana continues riding the train, affection for the young man growing in her heart.
When high school begins, Hana joins the Rakugo club because her crush, Miyamoto Masashi, is also a member of the club. One day, while following her crush, Hana witnesses Masashi hits his head hard on a garage door knocking him to the ground. Hana rushes up to him and asks him if he is okay. Masashi begins reciting some of his rakugo lines and is convinced that he is okay, but Hana asks him if he remembers her. On this he is not so clear, Hana then states that she is his girlfriend. This of course shocks Masashi and so begins the process of Masashi trying to recover from an amnesia created by the lovesick Hana.
I was worried by the premise of this film at first, because it has been done a number of times before. However, I should have had more faith in Iwai Shunji. This is truly a good film and it really tugs on the heart strings. Those of us who have had our love for someone else non-reciprocated while definitely be touched. The acting is well done. Especially that of Aoi Yu who played Tsuda Shiori, the young girl forced to be a prostitute in _Lily Chou Chou_. The music, as always, is very nice, and this time it was actually composed by Iwai Shunji.
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