HAPPY HOUR (ハッピーアワー) runs for well over five hours, and on that level is as experimental a film as you are likely to see. Yet the four award-winning leads, collectively given best actress at the 2015 Locarno International Film Festival, ensure that that time is spent exploring the most human of moments. What results from the gently epic journey is a rare beast, a delicate balance of heightened drama that still allows deep character exploration on a common theme of connections and conversations.
Set in and around Kobe in Japan, four thirty-something friends Jun (Rira Kawamura), Akari (Sachie Tanaka), Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) and Fumi (Maiko Mihara) have known each other for years. They make regular lunch appointments, go on trips together, and feel as though they can confide pretty much anything in each other. However, when “ex-housewife” Jun reveals to the rest of the group that she is seeking a divorce from her husband Kohei (Zahana Yoshitaka), something only school friend and fellow housewife Sakurako had previously known, it kicks off uncertainty and a a series of changes within the group. Stressed PR rep Fumi is particularly outraged, perhaps an early sign of the cracks in the perfect facade of her own marriage to a seemingly laidback book editor.
The format of HAPPY HOUR might better lend itself to television, but watching it in one continuous sitting (as was the case at the Melbourne International Film Festival) forces the audience to experience the emotional ups and downs of the lead’s lives. We become passive participants in these intersecting journeys, and the extended running time allows co-writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi a luxury few filmmakers afford themselves by letting the camera linger on moments. There’s a self-help seminar early in the film that virtually plays in real-time, and these long sequences filled with overlapping dialogue carry on into a restaurant immediately afterwards. At other times, such as Jun’s divorce hearing, the unwavering eye of the camera is an unfeeling witness to the harsh treatment of Japan’s family law system. The film culminates in a monotonic book reading, during which the tension between the players (and the notable absence of one) becomes silently explosive.
During sequences that are effectively conversations in cars, it’s easy to recall the work of the late, great Abbas Kiarostami. Yet despite the intimidating length of HAPPY HOUR, there’s simply so much going on to ever consider it a slow film. During the book reading, Kohei makes a comment that he felt “this seemingly calm story was really quite dramatic,” a rare moment of emotion from the character that might also be a meta remark on Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara, and Tomoyuki Takahashi’s screenplay. When the glue of Jun is suddenly absent from the group, the second half of the film is filled with activity, from Sakurako’s teenage son impregnating his girlfriend, to dedicated nurse Akari exploring her sexuality in a more decisive way. It’s a film of two halves, of the group together and alone, and it’s only apart that their insecurities come to the fore.
HAPPY HOUR is not a wholly seamless experience, but it is a uniquely enveloping one. Cast from participants in Hamaguchi’s acting workshops, there’s an awkward realism to every interaction, adding to the immediacy of the piece. There’s also more conclusions to the film than one of Peter Jackson’s sagas, but the same could be said of life as well. Indeed, this is what Hamaguchi has ultimately created here: a microcosm of life and all of its trivialities, but told with such utter sincerity that it’s impossible to look away.
HAPPY HOUR is playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival 28 July – 14 August 2016.
2015 | Japan | DIR: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi | WRITER: Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara, Tomoyuki Takahashi | CAST: Sachie Tanaka, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara, Rira Kawamura | RUNNING TIME: 317 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: MIFF 2016 (AUS) | RATING: ★★★★