[HARMONIUM plays at the Cleveland Cinematheque on Thursday, August 10 at 8:50 p.m. and Sunday, August 13 at 8:15 p.m.]
Review by Eric Sever
Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is a husband and father with a past that comes back to haunt him in the form of an old acquaintance. When Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) appears at Toshio’s workshop one day, the father hires the former friend, freshly out of prison, and even lets him move in.
Yasaka eventually ingratiates himself with Toshio’s daughter, teaching her how to perfect her harmonium playing, but when he begins a simmering flirtation with Toshio’s wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), the friendship begins to undermine the structure of the family.
After a suspicious tragedy strikes, Yasaka disappears, and the story jumps forward eight years to a very different life for Toshio, Akie, and their daughter.
A study on guilt, grief, and punishment, the story is equally satisfying as a moral-story thriller, not completely unlike the entertaining slew of late Twentieth Century “something-threatens-my-home-and-it’s-kind-of-my-own-fault” flicks, like FATAL ATTRACTION and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE.
To lump HARMONIUM in with those films is only to compliment it for its watchability and suspense.
Ultimately, comparisons to Michael Haneke’s CACHE or Dominik Moll’s WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY may be fairer – with men’s families being threatened by their own sins/negligence. Like those films, Fukada keeps it quiet and steady for long periods, then jolts the audience with a shocking piece of dialogue or a sudden burst of violence. Even during these times, it is not played with big cinematic trappings. It is flatly lit, largely without music, and subtly acted, giving these moments a heftier emotional weight and realism.
Fukada, who was also writer, takes the story further away from the expected thriller formula, by wringing out unflinching, sometimes devastating family drama throughout.
His use of long takes allows the entire cast to find the understated notes and rhythms of the scenes themselves, with Tsutsui giving a particularly resonant performance frequently without dialogue. Minutes pass between cuts, and the technique plunks you squarely into the room with the characters, uncomfortable as it often is. These long takes may be a bit trying for some viewers, but they set an intentional pace.
With a cycling motif of faces and breaths - even the wheeze of the instrument itself, HARMONIUM constructs a tale of familial decay and poetic justice that benefits hugely from strong performances and Fukada’s techniques.
As much as it may make your heart race at times, it may also make you appreciate the ones you love just a bit more, and that’s a pretty classy and unexpected feat for a thriller. 3 ½ out of 4 stars