Might the title be an instruction? If so, it’s not so easy to obey, judging from this movie from Japanese director Kôji Fukada who made such an impression with his sweet, Rohmeresque feature Goodbye Summer in 2013. (In fact, the title is taken from a Japanese pop song.) Love Life is an inexpressibly tragic and painful human drama about complicated lives, a movie that interleaves the utter desolation with a dry understated comedy and a sense of emotional tangle and chaos, a film that moreover blindsides its leading female character – and us, the audience – with an entirely unexpected coda section away from Japan in South Korea. In Shakespearean terms, this could be a filmic “problem play”.
A married young couple are living together in a small flat: Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and her husband Jiro (Kento Nagayama) and their lively eight-year-old son Keita (Tetsuda Shimada) who is a prize-winning national junior champ at the boardgame Othello. Keita is in fact Taeko’s son from her previous marriage to an expatriate Korean national named Park (Atom Sunada), a difficult, damaged man who is deaf; he abandoned Taeko and Keita and is now presumed to be living rough somewhere. Taeko and Keita learned sign language from their time with Park and use it to communicate secretly without Keita’s stepfather realising what they’re saying.
Jiro also has a complex emotional life – having jilted his longterm partner Yamazaki (Hirona Yamazaki) to be with Taeko. The couple’s flat is actually owned by Jiro’s parents, played by Misuzu Kanno and Tomorowo Taguchi, and Jiro’s father is deeply displeased by this new development; he approved of the unencumbered Yamazaki and envisaged her and his son together in his property, not this other woman with a child.
Things take a terrifying turn at the 65th birthday party which Taeko has arranged for her father-in-law at this flat. During the raucous fun, with grownups singing loud karaoke in the next room, Keita hits his head in the bathroom and falls into the tub whose bathwater Taeko has forgotten to drain. The resulting tragedy is succeeded by a brutal scene in the coroner’s office and autopsy room, an interview with deadpan cops who clearly want to investigate the possibility that one of the two adults might have wanted to murder the child, and then an ordeal of a funeral, in which Park appears out of the blue, deranged with anger and grief, and slaps the grief-stricken Taeko in front of the astonished mourners.
And all this is presented with cool, clear clarity by Fukada with not much more emotional signposting than some plangent piano music on the soundtrack. Taeko and Jiro’s lives just carry on in the disputed flat, the property in which Taeko’s mother-in-law had encouraged her to have a new child “of their own”. Taeko leaves the Othello boardgame out on the kitchen table, untouched, the game between her and her son which is to be left for ever unfinished.
Yet to add to their grief there are more problems: Park is now applying for welfare assistance, and Taeko, who works in the welfare office, is the only one with sign language able to translate and finds herself dragged into his case and back into his life. Jiro himself is drawn back into a kind of renegotiated friendship with Yamazaki, and they may still have feelings for each other. The awful, unspoken realisation dawns: could it be that to survive the terrible loss, they will have to dissolve their relationship and go back to their previous partners?
It is a movie whose gentleness and sadness coexist with a strange sense of the absurd, preposterous and tasteless new twists that life can give you: a film to remind you, perhaps, of George Bernard Shaw’s dictum: “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” It is a rich, varied meal of a film.
• Love Life screened at the Venice film festival, and is released on 15 September in UK and Irish cinemas.