Pale Moon Review
The theme of "desires, hopes and impulses" in the Japan Foundation's 2017 Touring Film Programme is one that everyone can relate to, but how many of us would follow the impulse to rob a bank in order to achieve those desires? On the surface, Daihachi Yoshida's Pale Moon is a tense drama that highlights the dangers of taking personal drives beyond the restrictions of accepted social behaviour and outside the boundaries of the law. It can also be seen as a commentary on the system itself, with its inherent flaws and limitations that are incompatible with those deeper human impulses. It may not be a surprise either to discover that when judgements are made the law seems to be applied with more rigour on the relatively minor indiscretions of an individual employee than it does on the far greater sins of the banking industry as a whole.
"Get what you want from life", a younger and more easy-going colleague tells the seemingly strait-laced bank clerk Rika Umezawa (Rie Miyazawa), but in the post-bubble economy of the mid-1990s setting of Pale Moon self-indulgence is a thing of the past. As a bank clerk and financial advisor Rika knows how to handle money, but even with her husband making successful inroads into the potentially lucrative market of the new Chinese economy and with no children of their own, Rika still struggles to balance and budget the family accounts. It seems rather unfair that an older generation have benefitted from the economic boom years and have money to waste on frivolous luxury purchases, but their wealth at least ensures that Rika has plenty of ageing clients willing to put their money into bonds and capital investments.
Feeling pressure to keep up appearances and not seeing why she should have to make sacrifices while others squander money, Rika appears to feel little guilt when she decides to siphon off a little of the money that her clients are investing for her own needs. They are hardly going to miss a few thousand Yen here and there, and she is sure that she can cover up any discrepancies in the paper work. Besides, it's only a temporary loan and she will pay it all back little by little. Things, inevitably, get out of hand and what might have been seen as a minor indiscretion handling some accounts soon turns into something uncontrollable when Rika also commits the further indiscretion of giving into a romantic impulse with Kota (Sosuke Ikematsu), a young college student who is the grandson of one of her clients. It's an indulgence that could prove to be her undoing.
The undoing of Rika Umezawa seems almost inevitable, particularly as her actions have attracted the attention of a watchful and diligent supervisor at the bank, Ms Sumi (Satomi Kobayashi). Between the financial and the emotional indiscretions, the film weighs up the question of material needs versus extravagance and the desire for security versus abandonment to deeper impulses. There comes a point, however, where a balance can no longer be sustained and Rika's actions become harder to justify. The film doesn't evade the trickier moral questions of her actions, but it doesn't let them impinge on the dramatic narrative that the plot has set in motion. The director, Daihachi Yoshida, provides a beautifully lucid account of the tensions that arise with an eye towards the eventual consequences that must be faced, but there's also much more to Pale Moon that it being a simple morality tale.
On one level, even if it's an unconscious motivation, Rika's actions can be seen as a strike back against social conventions. There's an element of rejecting the stability of the family unit in Rika's childless condition and in her abandoning the sanctity of her marriage. Her marriage problems and the lack of children in it may however be partly a result of the current economic climate that she and her husband must endure. A child might be unaffordable and her husband's need to succeed in his business venture takes him away to Shanghai for extended periods, so the economy and society could be seen as being to blame to some extent for Rika feeling that her hard work is undervalued and her personal and emotional needs are not being met. Kota's financial problems in paying back loans to continue his studies could also be seen as another indication of the younger generation having to suffer the consequences of the excesses of boom generation and the financial imprudence of banks and the Japanese economy.
Daihachi Yoshida's film, however, doesn't pretend that the pressures of the economic reality are enough to let Rika off the hook. Perhaps she has just let things go too far to care any more, but Rika seems to be fully conscious of her actions and willing to take full responsibility for them, or at least maintain that there is a degree of justification for what she does. Prompted by her co-worker, Rika is shocked into the realisation that the whole system is a sham; that corruption is rife and allowed to operate unchecked throughout the banking industry, and perhaps that frees the individual from a degree of personal responsibility. Some flashback scenes provide further clues to Rika's gesture of defiance and the choice she makes to take the responsibility for her life and her indiscretions back into her own hands. It's a realisation that leads to a surprising conclusion, but it's one that doesn't shy away from either from following through on the dramatic narrative, the social commentary or the emotional truths that the film has undertaken to present.
Daihachi Yoshida's Pale Moon is showing as part of the Japan Foundation's 2017 Touring Film Programme, which opens at the ICA in London on 3 February.
The touring programme will bring selected films to 14 venues across the UK from 3 February to 29 March 2017. Details on the films showing can be found at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme website - http://www.jpf-film.org.uk/.
An overview of the 2017 Programme can be read here/