A Walk on the Wild Side

in 64th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Mihai Fulger

Nothing is accidental and yet nothing is predictable in Ayumi Sakamoto’s debut feature, awarded with the FIPRESCI Prize for the Forum section of the Berlinale. The very first shot of Forma, in which we see young Ayako Kaneshiro (Nagisa Umeno) walking around her Tokyo high-rise office wearing a box on her head, might fool us into thinking that we are about to watch a film about a female protagonist’s alienation, another one of those corporate psychological dramas or thrillers which are becoming more and more popular as the business world grows increasingly ruthless. Big mistake. Yes, the film does speak about the alienation of this single woman living with her single father (since he is an even bigger workaholic than she is, you can imagine there isn’t much genuine communication between them), but this is just one facet of its multi-layered thematic and narrative structure.

When Ayako meets Yukari Hosaka (Emiko Matsuoka), her high school classmate whom she hasn’t seen for a decade, we might think this is a good starting-point for a classic old-friends-turned-enemies plot. And for a good part of the film, Sakamoto (who makes the most out of Ryo Nishihara’s screenplay, based on the director’s original story) doesn’t prove us wrong. Since her former schoolmate has a dull menial job as security on a construction site, Ayako offers to hire Yukari at her allegedly understaffed company. However, when Ayako becomes Yukari’s superior, their relationship grows tense. We slowly come to realize, along with Yukari, that Ayako’s behavior was not actually motivated by comradeship or generosity. But why does she secretly ask Yukari’s fiancé to meet her? Why does she subtly try to arrange an encounter between her father and Yukari? Such questions find their solutions in a masterful 24-minute one-take scene, shot from the perspective of a hidden camera, which manages to leave us breathless.

But before that climactic moment, the director makes a bold and challenging move by introducing a new character, who begins as a passer-by and gradually gains an identity and major role in the story. Moreover, some scenes, which were partly inexplicable before, achieve a new significance through this character, until all the disparate pieces find their places in an ingenious puzzle. And if at certain points we grow impatient with the long, patient takes in which nothing seems to happen (such as the playground scene, based on the two actresses’ improvisation), then by the end of this 2½ hour film, we may find ourselves wanting to go back to the start, for fear of missing some crucial details.

Forma, Ayumi Sakamoto’s surprisingly mature first feature, is not only a film about the problems of today’s world, but also about eternal human truths, about what lies beneath our social facades and interactions. The director invites us to take a brief walk with her on the wild side. And this is an invitation we should not refuse.

Edited by Lesley Chow