Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
You can’t choose your family, but you can choose to love them, warts and all. Or you can try to disown them – ‘try’ being the operative word.
That seems to be the basic tenet underpinning Yoji Yamada’s touching family drama, About Her Brother, which, as the title suggests is about a woman’s relationship with her brother, who proves to be a difficult, cartoonish character.
In this scenario, the brother Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei) is a loutish n’er do well, the sister Ginko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) is a graceful, kind widow. Both are middle-aged: She the mother of a beautiful young bride-to-be named Koharu (Yu Aoi); He an aimless, irresponsible bachelor fond of drink and games of chance.
Even at their advanced age, the dynamics have not changed. She has always been more of a mother than a sister to him, and he’s always been a troublemaking buffoon who’s needed her to bail him out of bad situations.
Her familiar admonishment of him is that, at his age, he should really know better.
Things come to a head when Tetsuro arrives from Osaka, uninvited, for Koharu’s wedding and predictably makes a big, public spectacle of himself, upsetting her husband and her in-laws and setting tongues wagging.
This is the first dilemma, after years of putting up with his antics, that we see Ginko facing. Should she forgive her brother, or will she make the hardest decision of all, and cut him off for good?
There will come another predicament, later in the film, that tests the resolve and love of Ginko and Koharu, who through her rocky marriage learns about the troubles of romantic love, as opposed to familial love and blood bonds.
The will-she or won’t-she question may be the biggest one of the film, but as the story progresses, the audience will find out just how hard it is to turn your back on a loved one, even if he drives you up the wall.
Even though Tetsuro appears to be an irredeemable soul, he is observed as someone who is not deliberately malicious. He is, as he himself admits, merely incompetent – he fails in everything he does, and his good intentions lead to trouble.
Yamada’s deft touch as the director – and co-writer – has us getting to know and feel for Tetsuro, as well as discover how the siblings care for each other and play well-defined roles. It is an emotional film, often bittersweet, but never mawkish or preachy.
True to Yamada’s style, there are little flourishes of comedy sprinkled throughout the picture. Witness Tetsuro’s artistic leanings as a singer and dancer during the dinner banquet horror show, and watch two quirky old men who patronise Ginko’s pharmacy.
The side story of Koharu, played by the pretty but bland model-actress Yu (Hula Girls), who catches the eye of a humble carpenter (Ryo Kase), pales in comparison to the brother-sister story, but serves as an example in contrast.
The actors behind the brother and sister roles come out of the film with great credit, especially Yoshinaga, who is a picture of decency here, a walking emblem of unconditional love. The pair are utterly engaging on the screen.
In the end, the film takes the story rather further than expected, into a dark territory filled with pitfalls, yet emerges with a hopeful outlook. Some have said that this story doesn’t scale the heights of Yamada’s 2008 film, Kabei: Our Mother.
No matter, it is one of the most compassionate films seen this year, and one of the most easily enjoyable, if a tad depressing.
It makes a case for second or third chances, or more – because fate pairs us up with some strange, incorrigible companions sometimes, those hardest to disavow.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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