NYAFF Review: Potechi (Chips)


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

Chips is the final film playing as part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival. It’s definitely a noteworthy position, placing the film in a spotlight with Vulgaria, Guns N’ Roses, and Doomsday Book. Although none of those films are my favorites of the festival, I loved all of them for what they were, and they are all absolutely worth watching. So even though I have never seen any of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s movies (shame on me, I know), had no idea what the movie was about, and found the 68 minute runtime somewhat off-putting, I went into the film with high expectations. Spotlight films had come from Hong Kong, China, and Korea. I wanted to see what Japan would have to show for itself.

And you know what it had? It had something pretty damn great.

Fumino Kimura and Eri Ishida in Potechi (Chips)

Chips (Potechi | ポテチ)
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Rating: NR
Country: Japan 

Although the story itself really has nothing to do with thievery, Chips is a story about thieves. Tadashi Imamura (Gaku Hamada) is a thief, but he’s not a very good one. He breaks into houses and gets ready to steal things, but an important phone call of some kind always seems to stop him. Before too long, he seems to give up on the whole thing. Perhaps when the film is over, and this particular story sees itself to completion, he’ll go back to a life of crime, but I don’t really know. There are some pretty life-changing things that happen, and it’s impossible to say what anyone would do in those circumstances, and it’s far more difficult to predict Tadashi’s actions. 

I don’t know what Tadashi’s issues are, but it’s clear he has some. It could just be that he’s kind of dumb, but it seems like it goes beyond that. When he wakes up and finds he has extra time, he decides to get out a protractor and draw triangles. Did you know that no matter what kind of triangle you draw, all of the interior angles will add up to 180 degrees? Of course you do, unless you’re a fan of non-Euclidean geometry, and if you are I don’t want to start some kind of ridiculous mathematical debate. But Tadashi didn’t know that, and he counted it as some kind of major revelation. He’s definitely not the social failure that the autistic son from Ocean Heaven is, but he’s definitely a bit off-kilter. Fortunately, it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really kind of cute.

Gaku Hamada and Fumino Kimura in Potechi (Chips)

The off-kilter disposition of Kurosawa (Nao Omori) is also cute, but in kind of a scary way. Kurosawa is also a thief, but he is one who is good at what he does. He seems to act as something of a mentor for Tadashi, although their relationship is never made entirely clear. He seems like a good guy, but there’s no question that he’s a psychopath. He is completely incapable of empathizing with human emotion, and this makes him a very dangerous person. That danger is used to great effect, and the scenes where he is put at the forefront are uniformly brilliant. And it’s not just the scenes themselves, which are funny, dramatic, and excellently staged, but it’s also Nao Omori’s amazing malleable face.

I tend to gloss over the acting in my reviews. I don’t really know why, because obviously acting is really important to the film, but it would be very difficult for a movie to be good (and not so-bad-it’s-good) with poor acting, so the quality of the acting is kind of implicit in my feelings about everything else. But I have to mention it here, because it’s wonderful. It’s not even really the acting, though, as much as it is the facial expressions that the actors make. I think that Nao Omori’s expressions are the best, but the others are still fantastic. If I had watched Chips with the sound turned off, I think I would have been affected just as much by some of the film’s more poignant moments, both the dramatic and the comedic ones. Everybody’s face is brilliantly molded to suit every situation, and watching the movie three times (allowing a chance to see actually see how everybody reacted to a conversation) would actually give some kind of brilliant payoff each time.

Gaku Hamada Fumino Kimura Nao Omori and Eri Ishida in Potechi (Chips)

I very rarely complain that movies are too short, but I think Chips would fit the bill. The film clocks in at only 68 minutes, meaning it would be almost impossible to overstay its welcome. If segments of longer films and Pang Ho-Cheung’s First Attempt are discounted, I believe it’s the shortest film in the entire festival, and I think that’s a shame. There is definitely room for expansion in a lot of the storylines, and I would simply wish I could have spent more time with the characters. I wanted to see more of Kurosawa’s tricks and Tadashi’s silly realizations. I wanted to witness more of the reactions that Tadashi’s girlfriend, Wakaba Onishi (Fumino Kimura), makes. I wanted to see how what would happen with Tadashi’s mother (Eri Ishida) after the film’s final moments. Perhaps that final one wouldn’t have worked in the context of the story, but I want to know. I would totally be okay with a sequel where they explored the ramifications of the ending.

Gaku Hamada and Nao Omori in Potechi (Chips)

But short lengths can also be a blessing in disguise. I would rather yearn for more of a film than despair at its excess. There is no question in my mind that Chips could be longer and be made even better by taking advantage of extra length, but I couldn’t say how much longer it could go before becoming too much. Maybe there was a 90 minute cut that director Yoshihiro Nakamura felt was too long. If that cut exists, I’d like to see it. But if it doesn’t, I understand. Perhaps some things are best left secret. A lot of questions may have been raised without a lot of answers, but they didn’t make me angry. I didn’t expect the film to go where it did, nor did I expect it to end where it did. There’s a lot about the movie that is entirely surprising. So I’m going to stop talking now, lest I ruin the surprise for you. 

On a side note: stay after the credits. If the rest of the movie hasn’t warmed your dead, cold heart, I think that may be the thing to push it over the edge. It’s a nice moment, one that I was sad to see wasn’t in the film when the credits rolled. If it hadn’t been there at all, it absolutely would have hurt the film as a whole.

[Potechi (Chips) will be playing at the Japan Society this Sunday, July 15th at 8:00 PM.]

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