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Review: Shippu Rondo

The Japan Cuts film festival wraps up this weekend, and today, I attended the penultimate screening of my five-ticket bundle: Shippu Rondo, a comedic thriller about a bumbling scientist (Hiroshi Abe, who played the washed-up novelist in Kore-eda’s After the Storm) desperately searching for a deadly bioweapon buried in the snowy expanses of Japan’s largest ski resort.

The movie shines brightest when it embraces its sense of humor, rapidly firing off visual gags (such as when a pair of snowboarders duel with ski poles as they race down the slopes) and biting satire (our hapless hero’s corrupt, miserly boss is more worried about losing his job than the threat of a catastrophic outbreak of anthrax) like a machine gun. It certainly helps that the screenplay is so impeccably structured, with numerous subtly-seeded payoffs that call to mind Edgar Wright’s brilliant work on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Unfortunately, with the sole exception of the protagonist’s strained relationship with his teenage son, the frequent attempts at sincere drama fall flat. Wright’s similar tonal shifts work so well because he lays just enough groundwork amidst the zany antics to earn the viewer’s emotional investment. In Shippu Rondo, on the other hand, the “serious” moments are relegated to minor subplots populated by secondary and tertiary characters; thus, every “heartfelt,“ tearful speech immediately kills the narrative momentum. This lack of focus severely dampened my enjoyment of the film; the old-school slapstick and high-energy set pieces are a genuine delight, but everything else feels like an interminable slog. Tellingly, I rated it a 3 out of 5 on the audience score card—which, from me, is fairly scathing criticism.

[Originally written July 22, 2017.]

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