Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour (2015), a story of four women told over five hours, gathered accolades throughout 2016 (sample them here) before landing on more than a few year-end best-of lists. So it’s a little disappointing that his follow-up, Asako I & II, hasn’t generated more excitement since its premiere on Monday. Asako is the director’s first film at Cannes, and he’s been dropped straight into the competition.
Asako, adapted from the novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, centers on a young woman (Erika Karata) whose boyfriend (Masahiro Higashide) has mysteriously disappeared. Two years later, she meets a straitlaced salaryman (also Higashide) who is the spitting image of him. Will she dare to love again?
Variety’s Maggie Lee finds that Asako is simply “less ambitious and lacks the raw honesty or spellbinding intensity” of Happy Hour. For Jonathan Romney in Screen, it’s a “coolly-executed but emotionally numb exercise.” And in the Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton calls Asako “an oddly old-fashioned depiction of troubled romance whose mildly unusual premise ultimately leads nowhere very interesting.”
The picture brightens once we look beyond the trade publications. In the Notebook, Lawrence Garcia finds that “Hamaguchi demonstrates a pop-inflected sensibility, and an attention to relationships and narrative developments that wouldn’t be out of place in an urban TV melodrama, which may account for why Asako I & II feels so thrillingly open. More than any other competition film thus far, it didn’t just resist expectations, but also seemed to keep them from even forming.”