December 1, 2016

Pink and Gray (2016)

In the opening moments of Pink and Gray, a new film by director Ikao Yukisada, we watch a young woman lead a contemporary dance troupe. At the same time an impeccably well dressed young man in an expensive apartment climbs onto a stool, wraps a rope around his neck and hangs himself. A friend arrives and discovers the body, as well as six separate suicide notes sealed in envelopes and an invitation for the friend to choose one - and only one - to act as the victim's final words. That is one hell of an opening hook.

Before we can process what has actually happened, we are thrown back 14 years to the childhood of the two friends. We follow them into adolescence and adulthood, where they are spotted by a talent scout one day and invited to become part-time models and extras. One friend, Gotch (Yuto Nakajima), immediately finds success and becomes a major film and television star. The other, Daiki (Masaki Suda), struggles and largely fails. The contrast in their lives begins to tear their lengthy friendship apart. Between them is a third friend, the aspiring artist Sari (Kaho), who enters into a troubled relationship with Daiki during his career collapse.

That is honestly as far as this film can be discussed without ruining some of its best surprises. The bottom line is that Pink and Gray is a surprisingly inventive and unexpected sort of film that stands head-and-shoulders above other Japanese idol dramas.

So based on years of watching superficially similar dramas, from Japan and elsewhere, it seemed likely that the entire film would lead up to Daiki discovering Gotch's body and ending shortly afterwards. Instead the film reaches its original scene halfway through. Then someone shouts 'Cut!', the actors break character and the screen fades into black and white. What we have been watching is not Gotch and Daiki, but a film production of their lives. It is revealed that Daiki (now played by Najajima) wrote a biography of Gotch after he died, which made Daiki famous. Now Daiki is playing the role of Gotch in the film adaptation. The rest of Pink and Gray follows Daiki's slow realisation that the life of fame and riches that he craved is not what he dreamed it would be, and that no matter how hard he tries he will never escape his more successful friend's shadow. What's more, the friend he eulogised in a biography and a film may not even be the person he thought he knew at all.

This twist presents a hell of a challenge to the cast. Nakajima has the largest task, spending one half of the film as Gotch and the other as Daiki. Masaki Suda continues to appear in the second half, now playing a loathsome actor who gets a thrill out of pushing Daiki's buttons. Yukino Kishii now plays Sally, with Kaho shifting over to the role of the actress who played Sally - in real life a drug-addled vain obsessive. All make the shifts extraordinarily well, particularly Nakajima who successfully sells the idea that he is the same person that we watched in colour, played by Suda for an hour or so already, at a later point in his life. This was his first feature film role, although he's appeared in television dramas for more than a decade. I really hope he finds success in cinema, because his performance here is fantastic.

This sort of shock twist midway through a movie could easily break it, but thanks to Yukisada's strong direction it actually holds together and becomes something much more interesting than it initially appeared to be. It's testament to the directing and editing quality of this film that it never gets more than initially confusing. It also thankfully refuses to tie up all of its loose ends. Real life is like that. The film ends on an open note: there have been lessons learned, and damage done, but whether or not things get better isn't a question Yukisada needs to answer.

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