Before We Vanish (Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2017)
The latest film from one of the most interesting directors in the world right now is playing at the Grand Illusion for week starting this Friday. Kurosawa Kiyoshi, director of such key Japanese horror films as Pulse and Cure, as well as award-winning dramas like Tokyo Sonata, was last seen here at SIFF in 2016 with Creepy, though his Daguerrotype was also released on VOD last fall. His new one is a science-fiction film about an alien invasion, and while its conclusion veers dangerously close to sappy, the path it takes to get there is anything but.
The aliens’ scout team consists of three “people” who take over the bodies of a trio of Japanese people: a teenage girl, a young man, and an older married man. Before the invasion can begin, they have to learn everything they can about the people of Earth, but language gets in the way so the aliens have figured out a way to steal “conceptions”, the preverbal ideas which are the Platonic forms of things like “family”, “work”, “ownership”, etc, directly out of human’s heads. This has the unfortunate side-effect of completely removing the concept from the victim, leaving them forever without any conception of self or otherness or what have you.
In theory this amounts to a kind of philosophical state of nature experiment, wherein you remove these basic ideas from our understanding of the world to see how we behave and what kind of society we’d build. The aliens have no understanding of these concepts until they take them, and we can see their behavior change when they learn what family is, for example, which ultimately contributes to their downfall. They enlist two “guides” along their way: the married man’s wife, who honestly likes him a lot better once he’s possessed by a malevolent creature from beyond the stars, and a tabloid journalist from a weekly news magazine, who agrees to help the aliens in hopes of staying alive long enough to thwart their plans, though his run-ins with the government forces pursuing the same goal and reexamination of his own life see him wavering in his loyalty to humanity.
Kurosawa’s direction is crisp and fluid, with snaking long takes, eerily upbeat music, and unexpected cuts giving everything a comic, off-kilter vibe that meshes nicely with the film’s not quite satirical, not quite earnest message. There’s even a healthy dose of violence and mayhem to keep things moving. A genuinely weird, light, and funny movie, a perfect tonic after all the dreary self-importance of recent Hollywood science-fiction.