Harmonium holds together as one unshakable two-hour experience.
Harmonium, Japanese director Kôji Fukada’s new domestic thriller, is essentially two films stitched together. Transitions are conspicuously absent for most of Harmonium’s runtime, but just around the hour mark, we get a jarring fade to black that could be easily followed by the production credits. This unofficial divider slices Fukada’s bleak, arresting story of smothered secrets and buried resentments into two episodes with radically different tones, set eight years apart. It’s hardly the patchwork it might’ve been; Fukada keeps the pace even, allowing the odd explosion only when absolutely necessary, and Harmonium holds together as one unshakable two-hour experience. What could easily be a huge detriment ends up one of the film’s smartest devices.
The first section has distinct echoes of Philippe Claudel’s excellent 2008 Kristin Scott Thomas vehicle I’ve Loved You So Long. It’s essentially a chamber piece about a family man named Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) who invites an old colleague named Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) to work for him and stay with his family. Toshio’s wife Akié (an outstanding Mariko Tsutsui) is initially hesitant, but as Yasaka begins teaching the couple’s daughter to play the titular instrument, she warms up to him and begins distancing herself from the more stoic Toshio.
A few secrets flare up and plenty of passion lurks beneath the surface, but for the most part, Harmonium’s first hour is stately and restrained. Cinematographer Ken’ichi Negishi builds tension with unsettlingly long tracking shots and Fukada keeps us on our toes by cutting abruptly between key moments, but the overall effect is haunting rather than thrilling. Any foreboding comes from the threat that something terrible could happen, but at every opportunity, mundanity prevails. Each red herring has a school of other red herrings at its back, so much so that eventually we’re more or less battered into relaxation.
I won’t spoil what happens in the second part, but suffice it to say that “restrained” quickly flies, flaming, out the window. Harmonium is more rewarding the less you know about its sinister twists and turns, but what saves it from becoming a pulpy slice of shock-and-awe is Fukada’s success in keeping the foundational hour in rearview at all times. His two-act structure doesn’t shrug at the first act as if it were a lengthy misdirecting taunt: the action from that hour permeates and informs the second, which scans more like Oldboy than I’ve Loved You So Long. Fukada fleshes out his ideas about marriage and loyalty, justice and regret, but he shifts his end goal from raised eyebrows to white knuckles with thrilling effect.
At a point, the whole enterprise threatens to tip into melodrama. Plot conveniences begin to stack up and Tsutsui’s role starts sliding into a sort of an inverse-Lady Macbeth. We’re handed perhaps one too many Major Gasp moments in a 20-or-so-minute span, and questions of emotional porn start swirling in our heads. What saves the day every time are the sterling performances. Tsutsui resists the opportunity for histrionics, remaining decidedly this side of Raving Lunatic and showing flashes of the warm timidity that endeared us to her from the very first scene. Furutachi, whose only job in the first hour is to look upset, reveals a man bound by his past choices who has no means to escape from a self-constructed emotional prison. Their skill, often breathtaking, combined with some truly expert camerawork, manages to tether the script’s more ridiculous developments back to Earth.
By the time Harmonium arrives at its pitch-black conclusion, we’ve been through the ringer. Fukada has at least a half-dozen thematic balls in the air, and he makes the wise decision to leave several avenues unexplored. In a twisted way, the film ends in a remarkably intimate fashion. Fukada spares us lengthy explanations or deus ex machina, and the only arc he attempts to fully close is Toshio’s. It’s not disappointing, though, because the whole film warns against personally exacted justice. Not every action requires a reaction.
Harmonium advocates for truth, transparency and acceptance of circumstance in the first act of our lives so the second act doesn’t get messy. Good advice, to be sure, but it’s Fukada’s gift to us that his characters don’t take it.
Playing exclusively at Film Society of Lincoln Center.