Review by Sean Boelman
It’s always exciting when a filmmaker’s profile grows so substantially that their early works are rediscovered and given a larger platform than they ever had. Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi became internationally recognized with his Academy Award-winning masterpiece Drive My Car, and his graduation project, Passion, is now receiving a release for the first time ever in the United States.
The film follows a group of friends who experience unexpected tensions when a couple among them announces their engagement. As is the case with pretty much every graduation project known to man, Passion is certainly flawed. However, the interesting thing about these early features — especially when watching them after the filmmaker is already established — is seeing how they reflect the foundations of the filmmaker’s evolving stylistic and narrative tendencies.
The part of Hamaguchi’s calling card that is most evident here is his use of flawed characters. Of course, as this is his first feature, he’s still struggling a bit to find the balance between humanistic and empathetic with their flawed and unlikable qualities. There are definitely some moments here where frustration wins out and the audience becomes disconnected with the characters.
Hamaguchi’s patient pacing is also very much on display in Passion. While the movie is hardly as long as some of his other work, it does move at a similarly slow pace. It’s a lot of conversation, and especially impressive considering the plot is the fact that he manages to avoid falling into the pit of melodrama.
The film offers some poignant observations, but the dialogue feels much more direct than a lot of what he would do later in his career. It’s understandable that the movie wouldn’t be particularly subtle given that Hamaguchi is still working out some kinks, but what he has to say here isn’t quite interesting enough to justify the slightly bloated narrative.
Passion is hardly as visually interesting as some of Hamaguchi’s later work, but this can be forgiven for two main reasons: it was made on a smaller budget, and in 2008, with less developed camera technology at his disposal. And some of the framing — one long take in particular — is intriguing, showing the seeds of his later visual styling.
One thing about Passion that is unquestionably fantastic is its performances. The entire central group is quite good, but the main trio — Aoba Kawai, Ryuta Okamato, and Fusako Urabe — particularly shine. (Fans of Hamaguchi’s work will recognize Kawai and Urabe as the stars of one of the segments of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.)
Passion isn’t broadly must-see filmmaking like Hamaguchi’s later work, but it’s worth watching for those who are fans of the auteur. If nothing else, it offers a fascinating glimpse into how he has grown in the past decade and a half.
Passion hits theaters on April 14.