Sometimes, when it comes to taking a hard look at foreign language films, you have to keep a little perspective – especially if you don’t speak the native language the film is presented in. Maybe that bad dialogue you think you’re hearing / reading is actually just a poor subtitle translation. Maybe that odd storytelling device you can’t quite put your finger on is some cultural nuance that you are failing to grasp. (One of the most famous of these is Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST, whose atypical and abrupt tonal shifts are not something commonly found in the West.)
Unfortunately, none of that is the case with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s REAL. The dialogue really is that bad. The exposition really is that ham-fisted and painfully cliché. And no, the sluggish pacing and tired story are not something that’s simply been lost in translation. All of these things are just part of the film, and they ruin a seemingly promising movie. Starring Takeru Satô and Haruka Ayase as lovers, the film follows Koichi (Satô) as he uses an experimental technique to enter the consciousness of his comatose girlfriend, Atsumi (Ayase). The plan is to try and lure her back to reality. As expected, things go horribly awry when reality and dream begin to intermingle.
REAL commits several cardinal sins of moviemaking. First, it’s boring. This is maybe the most important sin, because it prevents anything that happens later in the film from having any weight. The pacing can be occasionally excruciating through most of the film’s first half (as well as parts of the second) as we follow Koichi into Atsumi’s mind then back out again. This happens over and over with no clear point or purpose; Koichi doesn’t seem to have any clear idea what he’s supposed to do when he’s with her, and he wanders aimlessly on hunches when he’s not. More distressing is the fact that absolutely nothing is made of the fact that this is the first time he’s “spoken” to her in over a year – following her suicide attempt and subsequent comatose state, Koichi spends a year by her bedside. But when he finally gets a chance to “talk to” the love of his life – albeit only by interacting with her subconscious – he doesn’t seem surprised, or even care that much. No hug. No emotional toll. No sense that these two actually care about each other in any way, shape or form. So why should we care about them, or their struggle? We don’t, and the sluggish pacing had me glancing at my watch fifteen minutes into the film.
Which brings us to our second sin: REAL is painfully predictable. You don’t have to be a genre-whiz in this day and age to know how unclear-reality films work (even your uncool uncle has seen INCEPTION), so if you’re planning on taking one on, you better have some seriously surprising tricks up your sleeve. And while Kurosawa certainly has a stuffed sleeve or two, nothing that comes out of it is worth a damn because we’ve seen it all precisely one hundred times before. It takes no more than fifteen minutes of watching (ten or less, if you’re astute) to guess nearly every move the director has to make. So when the truth begins to unravel, it’s not surprising, or thought-provoking, or even entertaining – it just sits there like dead air, receiving zero reaction. High-concept stories of this type need to stay two steps ahead of their audience, and REAL can’t even keep pace with them.
And when Kurosawa finally starts to throw some real curveballs in the final act of the film, he undercuts it all with the third and final sin: the movie is just plain dumb. A surprising (but not particularly well-earned) eleventh-hour development about a childhood friend plays fairly well at first. And had Kurosawa chosen to end the film with that revelation, it would have certainly been stronger for it. But he doesn’t. He keeps going. And going. And going. Once he finally stops, he’s robbed his one promising idea of all its worth by turning the climax into a bizarre, unappealing and unimpressive creature flick.
The film is filled with moments like this. The first major plot twist occurs a little over halfway through the movie, and though it’s one of the most predictable developments in recent memory, it could be forgiven if the story which resulted from it was satisfying. But it’s not. Our realization over what actually caused our heroes’ coma is so dumb, so painfully counterproductive to everything that has come before and everything that will come after, that it’s no wonder there were audible snickers and laughs (at the film, mind you) during the screening.
Granted, Kurosawa has some interesting visual ideas, and there’s one particular moment of a melting cityscape that’s quite lovely. But beyond that, there is absolutely nothing worth recommending about this film. It’s dumb, unsatisfying, generic and generally insulting to its audience. Avoid it.