Unlike novels and television shows, where form is often grounded in duration and scope, length can be a dangerous repellant when it comes to cinema. In part thanks to filmmakers like Lav Diaz and Bela Tarr, whose films deliver miraculous dividends on laborious lengths of seemingly nothing, a long film has the unseemly connotation of being slow and boring, or at least somewhat inaccessible. Concepts of length are inevitably tied up with ideas of transcendence and ambition—long movies feel the need to justify themselves to hesitant viewers, the most enthusiastic of whom, usually ardent cinephiles, see long movies as epic challenges that threaten to disrupt already fraught film festival schedules. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour, though almost five-and-a-half hours long, is ennobled by humbler aims. With no pretensions to transcend space and time, it’s more interested in duration as a means of narrative evolution. Centering on the friendship between four Japanese women, all approaching forty and professionally and financially established, it watches—sometimes subjectively but often impassively—as honesty and its consequences unfurl their nested sense of contentment, and something messier, uglier, more sprawling and closer to reality begins to appear. A film that’s approach to length is as organic and character-driven as Happy Hour’s is a rarity, and as such there has been an inevitable and often hyperbolic scramble to define exactly what to call it.
Its proponents have tossed out a half-dozen comparisons to other forms. I’ve heard it described as novelistic, televisual and supremely ‘binge-worthy’. The easiest sell is perhaps the snackable, wide-baiting line it’s being sold with at film festivals: “a strange film that calls to mind both Sex and the City and Out 1”.1 You could also, as many critics have, call it Rohmer by way of Ozu, or long-form Kore-eda. It’s over five hours long, gentle (but never slow) and dialogue heavy, unfolding with a patient, distinctly Japanese politeness. It features an extensive experimental workshop scene and is padded by gorgeously composed pillow shots of the locales that these women pass through, often, as in Ozu’s cinema, facing directly into the camera when addressing one another. For better or worse, all of these comparisons are apt, and yet none fully convey Happy Hour’s rare and unique pleasure: its length gives it ample opportunity to explore these women’s lives with a richness, detail and authenticity rarely afforded to characters as seemingly ordinary as they are; the freedom to dramatise, and to evolve. Happy Hour is not a novel, nor merely television enlarged. While the temptation to slice it up and chuck it on Netflix will no doubt tempt wary distributors (a la Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur), Happy Hour is deserving of the undivided attention of a theatre setting. The word we’re looking for here is cinematic, so let’s use it.
Workshopped over twenty-three sessions, scripted in a free-form method not unlike Mike Leigh’s and crowdfunded in its native Japan under the working title Brides, Happy Hour is driven by organic exchanges and characters’ existential choices rather than by the interventions of screenwriters constrained to a two-hour runtime. The film opens in a state of happy stasis that over the course of the film’s first two hours slowly, almost invisibly implodes: sitting on a train, our four heroines (and they are all in their own ways heroic) emerge from a tunnel wearing contented grins. At their destination, a lookout just outside of Kohu, they laugh together, complain about their busy lives, and make plans to go on a group trip to the falls in Arima. Art venue manager Fumi (Maiko Mihara) invites her friends to participate in a New-Age meditative exercise workshop, and, to support their friend, they nervously oblige. The workshop scene both emboldens and quietly collapses the implicit peace set up at the outset. The instructor, Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), guides a class of ten through an escalating series of exercises intended to help participants align their cores: find your centre line, sit back-to-back and lift each other up, listen (literally, with head to stomach) to each other’s guts. Hamaguchi’s painstaking detail in this scene, which runs for half an hour, opens a gateway to real honesty between the characters, but also within the film – a sense of relaxed and congenial openness blesses it. In the following scene, where the specific connections within the group are revealed, Akari (Sacha Tanaka), a nurse, talks at length about the tribulations of her job in an aging and increasingly modern medicinal world, and Jun, in her own quietly explosive way, reveals that she is seeking a divorce from her husband.
Happy Hour simply wouldn’t work as a tidy, compacted two-hour drama, a point amplified by the film’s strange and lengthy narrative digressions and it’s slow descent into something much darker than its opening promises. The film tantalises us with its breezy front end before challenging us with grittier, harder to stomach truths about the real personal and professional struggles that women in modern Japan face beyond all the gentle social customs, behind closed doors and away from courteously conducted social spaces. The gloomiest of the women, housewife Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), deals with an unhappy accident involving her pubescent schoolboy son, the consequences of which she and her mother-in-law are charged with cleaning up; Jun has an encounter with her now-estranged husband that verges on violence; Akari’s increasingly comic interactions with an inept intern nurse highlight her professional woes; Fumi’s husband, a publisher, proposes a professional collaboration, one that she’s increasingly uneasy about. Amongst this sprawl of personal detail, in a beautiful, wordless sequence set on a desolate barge, Jun leaves her friends and the film behind, perhaps in search of personal solace, hinted at but never disclosed. It’s a gambit straight out of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, but it’s not a callow one — like Antonioni’s distinct, temporally stretched cinema, Hamaguchi is interested in the consequences of time’s passing and the formlessness of storytelling when that happens.
What begins as a gentle twin to Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister transforms via small steps of narrative detour and parenthesis into a murky patchwork of the layered sexism lurking under the surface of Japan’s collegial social custom, of the difficulty of contentment in love and friendship once high school memories become distant and faded, and of the sadness and transience of friendship itself. As the tight-knit group of four sheds its Sex and the City neatness, the essence of Happy Hour emerges: eschewing traditional form, it captures the sprawling messiness of modern life by its minutiae, with attention to the details often forcibly omitted by brevity. That the film ends with a shot almost identical to L’Avventura’s, with a hand on a shoulder set against a vast cityscape, is no accident. The film unpacks a tidy situation, sets its tendrils into orbit and then asks, ‘What’s next?’
Two long scenes of cooped-up claustrophobia are evidence of Hamaguchi’s mastery of look and gesture, and provide an inverse to the enthralling workshop scene at the outset, and clue to this question he poses. A courtroom scene for Jun’s divorce trial is filmed with surgical acuity; angular and stripped bare of colour and joy, it emphasises the chasm between female solidarity and Japan’s heartless marriage system through her friends’ sympathetic gazes and the sheer lifelessness of the proceedings, which inevitably turn in her husband’s favour. Later, after Jun has disappeared from view, another scene at Fumi’s art space acts as a fragile exegesis of the film and the fragile relationships it contains. A young female author who Fumi’s husband is publishing reads a short story to a gathered crowd as Akari slips away with Ukai and tests her doctrinaire anti-sex views, the film transgressively sliding into a gritty underground bar. Meanwhile, at the reading, by way the taxing glances exchanged between the remaining characters, the increasingly attenuated atmosphere of the space, the deeply-felt presence of Jun’s husband, and the vacuum left by Akari, Jun and Ukai’s departure, an otherwise unremarkable scene is elevated to extraordinary levels of tension. Somewhat transformative, this scene bids farewell to any remaining traces of optimism and buoyancy; in its final stretch, Happy Hour is anything but —it reckons with shockingly dark material considering its beginnings, but the tonal shift feels as natural as life itself.
It’s Hamaguchi’s astounding attention to the quotidian details of these lives and their complexities that lends Happy Hour its warmth and ravishing power — the kind of involvement in characters’ struggles for self-realization that’s so ingratiating that you can’t shake it once you leave the theatre, that expands long afterwards. It might be the most beguiling film of the year, its neatness offset by its messiness, its mesmeric moments of experimentation and its long stretches of conversation wrangling with the limits of narrative form and coming out on top.
For all Hamaguchi’s formal precision, chaotic moments break up the stillness of the whole. One such moment sticks in mind: at the Arima falls, in a scene otherwise notable for its tranquility, the women pose for a photo, and the film embodies their phone camera, shaking and moving as the women struggle to fit into frame, smiling directly at us. In the following scene a sense of renewed friendship, this time with its flaws on full display, hangs over the scene and its sparse locale; the women, sitting around a table in an Arima guest house, reintroduce themselves to one another, again facing into the camera as they do so. Hamaguchi is no newcomer—he has made seven films previous to Happy Hour, all of which are difficult to find—but Happy Hour’s inclusion in this year’s New Directors/New Films festival in New York is perhaps telling. Like his protagonists, his reintroduction to the world outside of his native Japan brings with it renewed promise, and a strange, audacious approach to long form cinema.
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