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Before We Vanish (Sanpo suru shinryakusha) (R)

Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Ryhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Mahiro Takasugi

Release Date: February 2, 2018

Runtime: 2 hr. 9 mins.

Genre: Drama

In his twentieth film, acclaimed horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa reinvents the alien movie as a unique and profoundly human tale of love and mystery. Three aliens travel to Earth on a reconnaissance mission in preparation for a mass invasion. Having taken possession of human bodies, the visitors rob the hosts of their essence - good, evil, property, family, belonging - leaving only hollow shells, which are all but unrecognizable to their loved ones. Equally hilarious, thrilling, and profound, BEFORE WE VANISH reminds audiences of the continued strength of one of Japanese cinema's most unique auteurs - and the value of the human spirit.

Review

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Tokyo Sonata) isn't known for subtlety or restraint. Although Before We Vanish represents a change-of-pace (a sci-fi film that, as is the case with many sci-fi films, examines the human condition), many of his signature elements are in place. Case in point: the fantastically attention-catching opening sequence, in which a young girl (Yuri Tsunematsu), covered in blood and viscera, stands over a scene of carnage before wandering down the middle of a road and causing an automobile accident. The promise of Before We Vanish's early moments is never fully realized, however, as the movie plods and meanders through an overly-familiar narrative on its way to a half-baked and uneven conclusion. (I wonder whether the production might have worked better as animation; it has the "feel" of something whose fantastical elements would come across as less cheesy if drawn rather than filmed.)

The girl is one of three aliens who have come to Earth to study it in advance of a larger invasion. She is joined in her body-snatching by a teenage boy (Mahiro Takasugi) and a middle-aged man. The latter, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), gets a lion's share of the screen time and, as a result, his story is the best-developed and most coherent. He's married to Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), who has just about had it with her philandering husband and is about to toss him to the curb when he begins acting strangely. The doctors aren't sure what's causing his symptoms, which include an unsteady gait, a lack of emotion, and memory lapses. They posit early onset Alzheimer's but aren't convinced. More tests are needed. Meanwhile, Shinji goes home with Narumi and the alien does a better job with the marriage than the human did. With shades of Starman, Kurosawa develops the relationship between husband and wife and allows Shinji to learn about the concept of love.

Had Before We Vanish focused exclusively on Shinji and Narumi, it would have been worth an unqualified recommendation. Unfortunately, Kurosawa also advances the stories of the other two aliens, who are less interesting and encumbered by tiresome and confusing narratives. Secondary characters, like a journalist and police detective, are no better developed than the teenage body snatchers. Every time these story elements hijack the screen, the movie becomes in danger of losing its audience. Only a return to the relatable story of Shinji and Narumi keeps viewers attentive.

The ending is confusing with bomber runs and fireball attacks. The special effects are perfunctory, unnecessary, and not especially convincing. The fates of many of the secondary characters are of minimal interest. I believe there are two possible interpretations about the invasion's resolution but, since it would constitute a spoiler to discuss them, I'll leave it up to the viewer to decide which is more likely.

The Shinji/Narumi relationship is satisfactorily resolved; it makes one wonder how much better Before We Vanish might have been with a stronger focus on these two and a less bloated running time. The actors, Ryuhei Matsuda and Masami Nagasawa, provide effective performances and evidence believable chemistry. Shinji shows growth and development evolving from an emotionally deprived husk into a petri dish of new emotions and experiences. There are moments of pathos and deft comedy in this aspect of the story. Overall, however, Before We Vanish is overlong, poorly paced, and scattershot; the mixture of themes and narrative pieces fit together awkwardly. It's a departure for Kurosawa but not necessarily a welcome one.

2018 James Berardinelli

Synopsis

In his twentieth film, acclaimed horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa reinvents the alien movie as a unique and profoundly human tale of love and mystery. Three aliens travel to Earth on a reconnaissance mission in preparation for a mass invasion. Having taken possession of human bodies, the visitors rob the hosts of their essence - good, evil, property, family, belonging - leaving only hollow shells, which are all but unrecognizable to their loved ones. Equally hilarious, thrilling, and profound, BEFORE WE VANISH reminds audiences of the continued strength of one of Japanese cinema's most unique auteurs - and the value of the human spirit.

Stills