“Passion” confronts a world of fraying relationships on both cynical and miraculous terms

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s 2008 romantic drama gets its local premiere at UW Cinematheque on July 13 at 7 p.m.
Kaho and Tomoya sit on a tan-colored couch in formal clothing, loosely clasping each other's hand. Kaho leans towards Tomoya, resting her head on his shoulder with a distraught expression. Tomoya stares pensively into off-screen space.
After returning home at dawn after separate nights out, couple Kaho (Aoba Kawai) and Tomoya (Ryuta Okamoto) comfort each other when working through distressing revelations.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s 2008 romantic drama gets its local premiere at UW Cinematheque on July 13 at 7 p.m.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning Drive My Car (2021) may have been many Westerners’ first opportunity to watch anything by the erudite Japanese writer-director, but Hamaguchi has been striving away and making films for 20 years. Emboldened by the publicly mounting appreciation for the scope of his on-screen compassion, distributor Film Movement is now reviving Passion, his 2008 student thesis project at Tokyo University of the Arts. The ensemble romantic drama is getting a proper (and first-time) US theatrical release—at UW Cinematheque on July 13—before it’s shipped off onto physical media this fall.

Previously, the only early-era Hamaguchi available stateside was a truncated version of Like Nothing Happened (2003), a bonus feature on Grasshopper Film‘s Asako I & II (2018) disc—an 8mm microbudget, quasi-autobiographical sociological study about the contrition and shapelessness of post-graduate life. Passion essentially continues to build upon these themes. It also finds Hamaguchi developing a methodology, becoming more confident with staging actors and framing of modern Tokyo as a setting—strengths that ripple out into the progressive sophistication of his 2010s and 2020s work.

Here, Hamaguchi latches onto a cast of old friends in their late 20s (Kaho, Tomoya, Takeshi, Takako, and Kenichiro), who secretly harbor a duality of affection and animosity towards each other. They’re all in different stages of commitment to their current relationships and career paths, anxiously aging into a new decade and shouldering the weight of unsorted baggage—unrequited feelings, past infidelity, impending parental responsibility, fracturing correlation between their jobs and contentment.

The title expresses the obvious love and lust at the heart of the film’s dramatic tension, but extends further into a thematic passion for mining truth through open philosophical pontificating. Characters are always scratching at that mental itch in order to grasp a semblance of reassurance—to know or simply hear something more—instigating conversations that only plunge them into greater distress. Engaged couple Kaho (Aoba Kawai) and Tomoya (Ryuta Okamoto) both typify this behavior in Passion‘s most emotionally challenging moments.

Their extended scenes include Kaho’s junior-high classroom discussion of violence and forgiveness in light of student Togawa’s suicide, as dialogue veers into the debate of fate and free will amid confession en masse. Soon thereafter, Tomoya orchestrates a mischievous variation of truth or dare (more like truth or truth) to pry into the attractions of, and his own attraction to, Takako (Fusako Urabe). It seismically misfires, leading Tomoya into a personal abyss that beckons to director Wong Kar-wai’s famous quote about love being a matter of timing. Even in the film’s penetrating candor from its opening taxi ride, the scenes’ collectively devastating directness persists in driving the nocturnal narrative towards a weary but sobering confrontation after daybreak.

As a student project with occasionally shaky cinematography and shot composition, Passion inevitably feels like a director finding his footing on a vast(er) landscape and cinematic stage. Yet, Hamaguchi’s film also lucidly reflects his own passion for this medium of storytelling, in configuring a narrative about moving through a world of physical and psychological affliction, both seen and unseen. In his characters, Hamaguchi relays the varied attitudes we can take towards our aging, ever-changing roles and the transience of modern life, whether cynical or miraculous.

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