In my experience, comedies don’t generally translate all that well from culture to culture. This isn’t necessarily because what one nation finds funny is offensive to another; it’s just that the cadence of delivery tends to get broken down when translated via subtitles onto the movie or TV screen. Physical comedy – general buffoonery and/or physical shtick – tend to convert just fine from one nation to the next, but character-driven stuff? That’s the harder sell mostly because what we see and hear as legitimate comedy doesn’t always ‘read’ well in context.
However, I was pleasantly surprised with KEY OF LIFE. While there are some broader attempts at physical humor in there – along with a wealth of mirth that plays out visually fairly similar to how it was handled in the era of silent film – most of the genuine charm comes from three slightly unhappy souls struggling with all-too-human flaws. One can’t find love. One can’t find work. One can’t find peace. But they’re all looking for love in the wrong places.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Sakurai (played by a deftly exuberant Masato Sakai) is an underpaid, unemployed actor who – out of desperation – tries to kill himself … only given his proclivity for sweating he fails at that, too! Kondo (a grim Teruyuki Kagawa) is a hitman who’d like nothing better than to lose himself in his love of classical music. Kanae (a mousey Ryoko Hirosue) is a media executive who wants to find herself a husband but only if the marriage can be plotted on a timetable. At fate would have it, the lives of these three characters are about to intersect in unforeseeable ways, and, if they’re lucky, they’ll all find what they’re seeking … unless gangsters kill them before they can figure it out!
KEY OF LIFE has so much going for it that I couldn’t possibly give nods to everything I liked about it. In short, it’s a romantic comedy cleverly wrapped around the classic caper flick – there’s a bloody death (or is there?) that sets these events in motion – and it’s all brilliantly plotted out by director Kenji Uchida in such a way that viewers are drawn into affairs that otherwise appear commonplace. It’s also a comedy of manners – these three disparate characters each come from their own tract in life, so they’re all suffering from their own requisite psychological hang-ups. In the hands of a lesser director, KEY wouldn’t work, but in Uchica’s, it all comes together winningly by the finish.
In fact, the only negative I can pull from all of it is that the running time feels a bit bloated. Rest assured: there are an awful lot of elements that have to be put into place before the true story reveals itself, so it’s understandable why the pace is a bit slow in the film’s opening. However, I thought a lot of Sakurai’s set-up was protracted – he has little dialogue, and there are moments in there that play out very Chaplinesque as he peels back the layers of uncovering just what he’s gotten himself into by assuming Kondo’s life (that’ll make sense if you’ve seen the film). Some of those sequences could easily have been trimmed, and I don’t feel any impact or meaning would’ve suffered from it. Rather, events would’ve sped up a bit, and thus the ending wouldn’t have felt as far away as it did.
It isn’t a matter of quality because KEY is an impressive accomplishment no matter how you slice it. Instead, it’s a matter of taste – get to the meat of the meal, and I’m a happier camper. As this one was edited, I didn’t like waiting for my portion as long as I did.
KEY OF LIFE (2012) is produced by Cine Bazar. DVD distribution is being handled by Film Movement. For those of you needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language release with English subtitles available (there is no English dubbing available). As for the technical specifications, the highest quality sight and sound – along with some excellent cinematography and an excellence use of musical score – make this one a delight for your eyes and ears. As is sadly often the case, this one comes with no special features related to the primary film, but there is a bonus short film (FINALE) from Director Balazs Simonyi if that sort of thing interests you.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. KEY OF LIFE does indeed serve up the keys to life – hint: it has to do with love – in a big, crowd-pleasing way. Wherever this one has played on the festival circuit, it has enjoyed terrific reviews. It isn’t hard to see why. It’s a smart script, and it’s performed pitch perfect by all players involved. The only reason I’m giving this one four stars instead of five is that, per my particular tastes as a critic, I felt it was entirely too long as a comedy – at two hours and ten minutes, I felt a bit distracted in the last act when it all came together. This could’ve easily been avoided by trimming ten to fifteen minutes out of the first two-thirds, and I think it would’ve increased the story’s effectiveness.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Film Movement provided me with a DVD copy of KEY OF LIFE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.