Key of Life (Kenji Uchida, 2012)

While at the ongoing 16th Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne, I managed to catch Key of Life (2012) followed by the Q&A session with writer-director Kenji Uchida and producer Hiroshi Ohnishi.

Key of Life poster

Key of Life revolves around three very distinct characters whose lives change after a strange twist of fate. With expertly interwoven elements of thriller, comedy, romance and tragedy, Key of Life is brilliantly-timed film supported by a stellar cast and a top-notch script.

Key of Life

When wealthy “businessman” Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) accidentally falls and hits his head in a bathhouse, failed actor Sakurai (Masato Sakai) switches their locker keys. Sakurai boldly takes on Kondo’s identity, while Kondo, who is suffering from amnesia, assumes the impoverished life of Sakurai. The reversal of fortune becomes complicated when Sakurai finds out what Kondo is actually involved in, while Kondo meets the lovely Kanae (Ryoko Hirosue), an ambitious magazine editor who is looking for a simple, honest man to be her husband.

The theme of mistaken identities for comic relief has its roots from Shakespearean days (A Midsummer’s Night Dream, As You Like It). Whether it involves cross-dressing (Some Like It Hot, Bringing Up Baby), or simply body switcheroos (Freaky Friday, It’s A Boy Girl Thing), they heavily rely on the cast’s incredible talent. In Key of Life, the three leads couldn’t be any more different from each other but somehow make a cohesive trio of sorts. Kagawa, who plays hitman Kondon, really stood out for me. He is especially convincing when he was a clueless, earnest man suffering from amnesia and yet, still gains a certain like-ability when he resumes his role as the seemingly menacing, cold-blooded hitman.

Screened at numerous festivals worldwide (Toronto, London, Singapore), Key of Life has clenched a number of prestigious awards – recently winning Best Screenplay at the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival. Writer-director Kenji Uchida is no stranger to high accolades as well (his debut film A Stranger of Mine (2005) won four awards at Cannes – which I have unfortunately, yet to catch) and Key of Life is no exception to his remarkable talent.

Q & A with film critic Peter Krausz

During the Q&A session, Uchida admits into making a Howard Hawks-esque screwball comedy in Japan. I think he definitely achieved this, Key of Life incorporates signature characteristics of screwball comedy – a confident and independent female protagonist, a struggle between different classes – all set against the backdrop of modern Japan. At the same time, Key of Life doesn’t fit into a single genre as well. As Uchida mentioned, he usually writes a script without any genre in mind and doing so, Uchida successfully produces a film that becomes something quite unexpected. He deliberately withholds certain comic elements and you’re never too sure what’s bound to happen. Key of Life, of instance, begins with Kanae announcing to her staff that she’s getting married and one of her employees asks, “Who’s the lucky man?”; she instantly replies, “I haven’t found him yet.” The next scene, is surprisingly morbid as we find Sakurai lying on his bedroom floor, recovering after a failed suicide. It’s this kind of unpredictability that doesn’t abrupt the flow of the film, but instead, enhances its multi-layered dynamics between the three protagonists and also perhaps, as a subtle nudge to the audience, to tell them: “you’re in for a ride”.

I'm not gonna reach my telephoneAnother thing which I found quite outstanding was when Uchida stated he did little or not much storyboarding before the film. He simply chose the shots on the spot to suit the actor’s portrayal. This is another sure sign of Uchida’s talent, where there were quite a number of standout scenes in Key of Life which are fantastically well-shot (thinking back, actually all the scenes were well-shot). Uchida, a filmmaking graduate from San Francisco State University, recalled one of this best moments was during a scenario-writing class: he read out his comedy script and his whole class, including all the American students, were laughing heartily. I think this shows where Uchida’s confidence in comedy is derived from, and he certainly has every right to be.

My rating: ****

Japanese Film FestivalThe 16th Japanese Film Festival will be running in Melbourne till 9 Dec, and also in Brisbane from 7-16 Dec. Check out my coverage of the festival.

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