Investing in a new relationship can be hard with an ex on your mind.
Of course, this is inevitable. Everybody has a past, many people have relationship histories, and the more you invest in a person, the harder it can be to let go. Feelings don’t just go away, they have to be processed and worked through, and for as much as one would hope a partner would work through them before entering a relationship, no one can control when feelings arise. These internal conflicts are explored intimately in Asako I&II.
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Asako I&II tells the story of Asako (Erika Karata) and her relationship with two men. The first is the aloof and mysterious Baku (Masahiro Higashide), whom she falls for at first sight and enjoys a passionate love affair, only for him to mysteriously vanish. Two years later, she meets the awkward but friendly Ryohei, also played by Masahiro Higashide, a businessman who looks exactly like Baku.
Hamaguchi understands how to communicate second thoughts subtly. He uses shorthand dialogue and quiet moments to show how Asako’s thoughts are sometimes elsewhere when talking with Ryohei. Their chemistry is subtly there, but there’s always something missing in their conversations, something keeping them from being fully in sync. You can tell there is a connection, even a warmth between the two, but it feels like Ryohei was the one trying to foster the relationship, while Asako is holding something back. I appreciate Hamaguchi’s decision to show this tension subtly rather than creating artificial animosity or aggression. After all, stresses in a relationship don’t always come from someone doing something wrong. Asako is always thankful for Ryohei’s kindness and attention, and it’s clear she wants to invest deeper. But she’s usually, in subtle ways, distant from the relationship, as she fights herself about how much of her affection for Ryohei comes from his resemblance to Baku. These details are only possible thanks to the excellent performances of the leads.
Erika Karata’s performance as Asako was constantly engaging to watch. It’s challenging to portray a character as distant while still delivering a performance you wanted to see. A big reason is that her distance has context related to the relationship, as she tries to rationalize her affection to Ryohei. Masahiro Higashide also had a challenge of his own, a duel performance as Baku and Ryohei. He handles his performances masterly, as he completely transforms himself between the casual Baku and earnest Ryohei. The way he changes his mannerisms is impressive, and this duel performance actually has a point. The duel performance acts as shorthand for Asako’s perception of him. When she sees Ryohei, she sees Baku, which impacts how much she sees Ryohei as Ryohei in the relationship versus as a superficial replacement for Baku. This context gives his performance greater weight and value beyond being a gimmick.
Asako I&II is a clever spin on a love triangle that feels both high-concept and grounded. Asako’s conflict feels relatable, and the fantastical premise makes some of the stranger moments in the film feel more natural. You really grow to care about this couple, and understanding of their situation. This was an emotional experience and I think everyone will find something in the film that resonates with them.
Asako I & II will be available to stream on MUBI on July 13th as part of their Cannes Takeover Series.