NYAFF 2017: A Double Life Film ReviewBy Anthony Calamunci
Festival review: The flawed “A Double Life” nonetheless has its merits
“A Double Life” is written and directed by Yoshiyuki Kishi, based on the novel by Mariko Koike. It stars Mugi Kadowaki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masaki Suda, Lily Frankie, Setsuko Karasuma, Naomi Nishida, Yukiko Shinohara, and Shôhei Uno.
Yoshiyki Kishi’s A Double Life was Japan’s entry in this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. The film is a drama about a young woman, Shiraishi Tama (Kadowaki), a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy. She lives with her boyfriend (Suda), a video game designer. She meets with her professor Shinohara (Uno) about possible thesis topics, and he suggests that she begin “tailing” a stranger and recording her observations as a basis for her thesis, emphasizing that it will only work if the two never meet. Though initially skeptical, Tama begins stalking her handsome, successful neighbor (Hasegawa) and keeps a notebook detailing his daily activities.
As you can imagine, things escalate from there. Tama begins to see that there is more to her neighbor than meets the eye, and that he is carrying on a double life. Over the course of her project, she begins a double life of her own, keeping the project a secret from everyone except her professor.
This is a story I found engaging from start to finish, even if I had a number of issues with it. It has a strong narrative hook, and the plot moves along at just the right pace, never dragging, but giving each development enough room to breathe and feel like an organic escalation. There are some problems with the story, however, that prevent it from having the emotional heft it ideally would. Having Shinotara come up with the idea to for Tama to follow someone is a curious choice.
As she progresses on her project, it feels like she is just doing what her professor wants, rather than following some inborn drive. This gives her character a feeling of passivity that is not particularly interesting. It’s the sort of thing you’re taught to avoid in Screenwriting 101. There’s also a good deal of suspension of disbelief required here. Would this project really fly as a master’s thesis? What kind of professor assigns a task so potentially dangerous? These are the sorts of questions you just have to kind of make peace with here. The premise is more of a jumping off point for Kishi to explore themes of relationships, performance, and secrets than anything else. And it certainly works on that level.
Another issue I had is that I found Tama to be a frustratingly opaque character. I was never clear exactly on her motivations, her wants and fears. She makes a choice in the film’s second half that is surprising given what we know about her. This isn’t inherently problematic, but it would have been nice to get a bit more context for this choice (I’m being vague so as not to spoil).
There are emotional beats, though, in the final act that land. Shinohara reveals himself to be the most complex, tortured character in the piece, and there are wonderful moments of character interaction sprinkled throughout the film. Kishi proves a keen observer of human behavior. Hiroki Hasegawa, as the stalked neighbor, is the standout performer. He really sells the different layers of his character: a man who is constantly performing. He is fascinating to watch.
While there are certainly narrative problems with A Double Life, I ultimately enjoyed its exploration of the secrets we keep, and the damage we unknowingly inflict on one another.