53rd Chicago Int’l Film Fest #18: “The Scythian Lamb” (Japan)

“The Scythian Lamb” (Japan)
Directed by Daihachi Yoshida

thumb_The_Scythian_LambThis odd little Japanese offering, based on an award-winning Manga production of the same name, is pleasingly curious, mysterious and, most surprisingly, very human. The film revolves around a governmental decision to place convicts, whose terms are almost over, in to various small towns to minimize prison over-crowding. As such, there are numerous satisfying character studies and interesting storylines as we follow six such people and the young civil servant whose job it is to both place them in the city and gauge their success (or failure).

The script has a real sense of confidence about it, meaning there are no times in which we feel like it’s taken on too much. This is because the original creators, Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi, also wrote the script. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, some very violent moments, and more than a few that draw tears. It never ventures in to that fish-out-of-water comedy that the plot lends itself toward – well, very infrequently, anyway. Instead, it concerns itself with the trials of surviving outside of a prison existence…the struggles of becoming self-sufficient. This tack keeps us incredibly invested, and it is not until the very strange, and, frankly, over-the-top third act that it ventures toward a more plot-restrictive path.

The acting is hugely successful. Each of the six cons are terrific, but standouts include the meek and mysterious Kiyomi, played by Kimura Fumino; the timid barber, Fukumoto, played to three-dimensional perfection by Shingo Mizusawa, and the aging former gangster, Katsumi, inhabited by long-time character performer, Min Tanaka. Holding it all together is the under-played “aw shucks” performance of Ryô Nishikido as a civil service worker. But everyone in the film brings a considerable light touch to what could have easily fallen in to farce.

That it doesn’t shows just how much director Daihachi Yoshida understands what this film is truly about. It’s shot in a tamped-down color pallet, as if the village somehow feels less alive in the eyes of the six than perhaps even prison does. It works beautifully. The score, by a composer whose name I cannot find on an English site (sorry!), is effective…sparse, a little odd…like the film.

I have no idea if this film will ever get distribution stateside, but if it does, or somehow shows up at the art house in your neck of the woods, you should absolutely make the effort to see it. A lovely film experience.

Trailer is in Japanese, and portrays a much more intense film than it actually is, but you’ll get the gist…

 

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