While the urge to consider non-Western festival films in a kind of abstracted vacuum of otherness is always hard to avoid, and usually sketchy at best as a critical approach, some works seem to leave room for no other interpretation. Hiroshi Chono’s At Home is just such a film, one which absolutely has to be considered as a product of Japan and its myriad intricacies before being considered as a commodity in the global market. Its baffling narrative decision-making and often maudlin clunkiness are no doubt related to its examination of the meanings of family and responsibility in modern Japan – ultimately, though, these shortcomings are hard to overlook, and At Home takes on some of the absorbing impenetrability of the offbeat East Asian family drama, but little of its charm or panache. Often a cacophony of mismatched stylistic decisions – many of which would have functioned well in a more even piece – At Home’s reluctance to assert itself as either a hard-bitten thriller or vicious social satire comes across all too frequently as a head-spinning overreliance on flashbacks and expository dialogue. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that whatever the film has to say is beyond the grasp of most Australian audiences, and bound up in questions of assimilation and normality integral to Japan.
The premise of At Home does place it neatly into a Japanese cinematic niche, between the bodily-fluid-soaked Miike crime films of the Nineties, and the previous decade’s loopy comedy-dramas like The Family Game and Tampopo. Its titular ‘home’ is a strange one, populated by five people, none of whom are truly related, but rather an assortment of waifs and strays relying on each other for some semblance of normality after traumatic previous lives. Furthermore, they’re all crooks: the father Kazuhiko is a housebreaking thief, the supposed mother Satsuki has turned to extorting businessmen for income after a terrible abusive marriage, and three kids support their ersatz parents through minor crime, particularly the teenaged Jun, a passport forger. The film’s best moments are when it takes the opportunity to play on the dark humour of the bastardised family atmosphere the characters have created, whose criminality is nevertheless far more wholesome than the previous awful psychological and sexual abuse most of them suffered – in supposedly normal society, no less. A standout sequence involves the family at their immaculately clean dinner table, planning the false names and identities they’ll take on – the youngest, Takahashi, wants to make sure his new name can be written with cool kanji characters, or at least involves the ideogram ‘ryu’, meaning ‘dragon’. At Home often has the grit to take swipes at the strictures of ‘acceptable’ community mores, while retaining the human elements inherent in relationship-building.
Unfortunately, these moments are rendered alternately confusing and eye-rolling by its strange narrative structure and ham-fisted emotive plotting. The gritty pre-title sequence, for example, a monochrome scene involving Kazuhiko discovering Takahashi chained up in his real mother’s bathroom, is followed by an odd credits backdrop which looks exactly like an ad for air fresheners, the camera tracking indulgently around the new family’s home, all light timber and cushions, accompanied by twinkly pianos. It’s unnerving: impossible to tell whether the film is taking itself seriously or not, we’re forced to err on the side of parody, a shame in a work so obviously looking to pick apart typical social mores. Most confusing of all is the plot structure. The first third of At Home builds a tight thread around Satsuki’s embroilment with an extortion target who clues on to her intentions. Kidnapping her before she can rob him, the whole family ends up in a disused office building in a tense standoff – at which point the film then spends forty minutes in flashback mode, tracing the odd commune’s ‘origin story’ as each member escapes their old life and comes together over time. This decision completely dissipates the accrued tension of the kidnap plotline, and leads to several awfully saccharine moments, as the pathos established by the time the film returns to its supposed main story powers its happy-family finale.
In truth, At Home possesses an impressive stylistic palette, with some of the criminal flashbacks and in-the-present gun-wielding scenes shot in monochrome, or with unexpected and wholly welcome shaky handheld cameras. It also isn’t afraid to subversively appropriate the more traditional formal elements of Japanese cinema, with plenty of low-angle dinner table shots and angular outdoor framing accompanying its more rebellious moments. The problem is, simply, that none of these styles are allowed enough breadth to actually define the film, and as a result it feels like a cinematic hodge-podge of themes, styles, and moods. While Chono’s film is clearly literate enough to meld various influences into a coherent product, its conclusions about familial standards, the place of alternative lifestyles in society, and the warring values of criminality and homeliness are poorly expressed and finally disappointing.