Cinema of Japan

5 Million Dollar Life 五億円のじんせい Dir: Moon Sung-Ho [New York Asian Film Festival 2019]

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5 Million Dollar Life

五億円のじんせい  「Gooku Yen no Jinsei」

Release Date: July 20th, 2019

Duration: 112 mins.

Director: Moon Sung-Ho

Writer: Naomi Hiruta (Screenplay),

Starring: Ayumu Mochizuki, Anna Yamada, Ryu Morioka, Satoru Matsuo, Sumire Ashina, Junko Emoto, Naomi Nishida, Taro Suwa,

Website IMDB

Moon Sung-Ho was first mentioned on this blog in 2014 with his NDJC film Michizure. Originally from Hiroshima, after graduating from high school, he studied film-making in South Korea and then returned to Japan to shoot commercials and short films according to the NYAFF biography. This is his debut feature based on an original screenplay by veteran writer Naomi Hiruta and it has a weird energy thanks to its dark heart, a story so concerned with death and exploitation, and a light delivery in terms of direction and the script/actor’s as well the sunny daytime action.

The titular 5 million dollar life belongs to Mirai Takatsuki (Ayumu Mochizuki). When he was young he had a life threatening disease but he was saved thanks to his local community who donated five hundred million yen ($5 million) to pay for his open-heart surgery. This made him something of a celebrity especially with an annual television show broadcast about him tracking his life since that moment. As he has grown up he has struggled to “repay” the life-saving act of generosity given to him by the public and as he tries to maintain an honourable and pleasant facade and appear as a do-gooder in public although he feels increasingly disaffected by his situation and has developed something of an inferiority complex as he doubts he can live up to his media image.

In reality he is an alienated high school student who feels he cannot live up to the price-tag given to him, so alienated he decides to commit suicide and writes down his intentions on SNS which is how he receives a message from a stranger which states, “if you want to die, you need to return the five hundred million yen first.” This message sets off changes. He decides to leave the comfort of his home and protection of his doting mother and take on different jobs with the intention of earning the money. Once that has happened, he’ll commit suicide. The only problem is that, at the age of 17, getting a job will be hard and he will have to start from scratch and so accomplishing this challenge changes Mirai’s perspective on life as he gets a taste of reality and comes to understand that a person’s value is down to more than just money.

You don’t get to set your own value

What initially sounds like a standard set up for a coming-of-age story quickly escalates into something that surprises as plenty of drama and dashes of comedy and even farcical situations mount up for our naive protagonist Mirai who tumbles from one situation to another and experiences the hardships of life lived by those at the bottom of society from exploited day-workers to yakuza and lonely office ladies. As the narrative progresses a number of issues affecting Japanese society are touched upon from homelessness to sex-work and more and it is done at a fair clip thanks to bouncy pacing so the film manages to dip into the darkness and move on, situations and people giving Mirai a lesson on life that is implemented later in the film as his diverse experiences build him up as a character and keeps audience engagement high.

Throughout his journey there is the sense that his series of misadventures is teaching him but there is the sneaking sense that he is actually really, really selfish as he puts others who genuinely care about him, his mother especially, through an emotional wringer with his absence and silence. What prevents the character from becoming unlikable is the lovely presence of the actor Ayumu Mochizuki who is effervescent and bubbly so that even when he is excessively mopey and mean, such as when he talks directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, he is forgivable. His natural dramatic abilities and also a touch of comedic reactions work well to bolster the playfulness of the film as well as create a character who has depth and learns the extent of his personal value. As he struggles through dark times, he applies the Japanese qualities of gaman and gambarimasu and lets his natural disposition towards being good and his natural kindness shine through, something he clearly lost sight of before the film. Fortunately, others have an idea and let him know and his lesson (and the audience’s) is that the value of our life is determined by others as well as by ourselves.

This is a coming-of-age story married to a road-trip movie with a naive lead prone to falling for deceptions and getting into increasingly outrageous scrapes and the film surprisingly turns into an astute examination of what is important in life: to value ourselves and the people and things around us.

5 Million Dollar Life will get it’s North American premiere on July 11, in competition at the New York Asian Film Festival. Director Moon Sung-ho will be in attendance for an intro and Q&A.

Ira Ligar
Major Poker88 Strategy

    jam Dir: Sabu (2018) [New York Asian Film Festival 2019]

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