By Liam Lacey
Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has worked in various genres since the mid-‘80s, but he's best known for his two brain-tickling occult thrillers, 1997's Cure (viral hypnotism) and 2001's Pulse (ghosts that leak through the Internet).
His films, which mix an engaging ironic pop sensibility with an unsettling philosophical anxiety, are easily absorbed but hard to forget.
Though not at that level, his latest, Before We Vanish, is a sporadically fascinating, idiosyncratic alien-invasion story with elements of fifties' pastiche, apocalyptic thriller and romance.
An early scene shows signs of a protest against the presence of a local U.S. army base, but the political theme proves no more than a feint.
The invaders this time come from within. Three ordinary Japanese people in a small town turn out to be the advance party for an impending attack that will destroy humanity.
The first operative appears as a uniformed schoolgirl, Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu) who walks away from a family slaughter onto a busy highway, smirking as a tractor trailer jackknifes behind her. Meanwhile, in the town hospital emergency room, a confused businessman, Shinji (Ryûhei Matsuda) is brought in by annoyed wife, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), who thinks he might be faking his illness.
The third alien is a teen-aged boy, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) who walks up to a cynical TV news reporter, Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), who is investigating the family murder case. Amano explains that he's an invasion scout and needs the reporter as his "guide." Sakurai decides to go along with the joke.
The aliens aren't here simply to find good landing spots for their invasion, but to harvest human "concepts" -- family, property, freedom, work and self. The process involves tapping people on the heads and extracting the concept from them. The person falls down, quickly recovers, and walks about missing a piece of their intellectual equipment, sometimes to their benefit.
A neurotic shut-in is magically liberated by losing his concept of "home.” A stern manager begins acting like a boisterous chimpanzee when the concept of "work" is extracted from his head. And Shinzi's wife is relieved that her husband has become a bumbling amnesiac because, for a change, they aren't quarrelling.
Instead, Shinzi, in his alien fact-gathering capacity, has started to actually listen to his wife. His journey toward empathy is assisted by a visit to a church, where a children's choir sings Jesus Loves Me.
Kurosawa's parable about the prisons we carry about with us is thought-provoking and occasionally witty, but unfortunately, not concise. The director co-adapted the screenplay with Sachiko Tanaka from a popular 2005 stage play by Tomohiro Maekawa. The film remains largely dialogue-driven, though hardly static.
The Japanese title literally translates as "Strolling Aliens", a clue to the amount of meandering about the characters do in the film. The last third sees familiar sops to the fan boys -- some kickass brutality from the violent schoolgirl Akira, and blasts of climactic CGI apocalyptic imagery. But it's a case of diminishing returns. The chief flaw of Before We Vanish is that it lingers too long.
Before We Vanish; Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa. Starring: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Atsuko Maeda and Hiroki Hasegawa. Before We Vanish screens at the Scotibank Theatre.