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Original Title:
Hana to Arisu

Japan 2004

Drama, Comedy, Romance

Shunji Iwai

Anne Suzuki
Yu Aoi
Tomohiro Kaku
Shoko Aida
Sei Hiraizumi
Tae Kimura
Takao Osawa
Hiroshi Abe

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Hana and Alice

Story: Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) are very close friends. They both share the same hobby, learning ballet and take pleasure in traveling by train. One day on their way to school they see young Masashi Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), who is always absorbed in a book. Hana seems to find him attractive and so a few months later she tries to get into the same acting club he is already a member of. When she secretly follows him on his way home, she sees how he bumps his head and goes down. Hana takes advantage of his first confusion and tells him that he is suffering from amnesia and that she is in fact his girlfriend.
Masashi actually can remember anything, just not Hana and so he spends some time with her to get her to know better und to reawaken his memories. However, he can't find the feeling of love he is supposed to have towards her.
After all, the situation becomes even more complicated when Hana, because of some unfortunate circumstances, asks her friend Alice to pretend to be Myamoto's ex-girlfriend. Because of their made-up stories Hana and Alice can't see each other as frequently as before, and moreover, when Masashi talks with Alice, for him to get to know more about his past he also seems to fall in love with her.
Can the friendship of the two girls overcome the difficulties of the love triangle?

Review: Shunji Iwai is without a doubt one of Japan's most extraordinary contemporary directors. His movies radiate a unique kind of magic, stand out because of their fascinating and dreamy atmosphere and are very worthwhile because of their wonderfully unusual cinematography. "Hana und Alice" is his latest movie and it can live up to what we came to expect of it after Iwais latest movies. It's not as profound as "All about Lily Chou-chou" or as entertaining as "Love Letter", yet in a very amusing way it takes us on a journey into the world of two best friends, who are wandering on their path of maturity, and doing so gain experience in what love is about as well. The love triangle, however, isn't really the center of events and so most of the time the film manages to balance between lighthearted comedy and drama, without getting lost into the usual cliches.

At first sight, Hana und Alice are two ordinary girls, but as time goes by we are introduced to their inner life and their living conditions. Their characters become surprisingly multi-layered and later on there seems to be only little left of their former childishness. Well, there is no better word than childish to describe their little games, and still, these games make the movie so entertaining and stand in strong contrast to the theme of growing up.
The story of Shunji Iwai is pretty good, even if it sometimes loses focus. On the other side, you can never be sure if Iwai really wanted to place more value on a certain aspect of the movie than on another one. Apparently, the love story with Myamoto is given priority. What is love? Can love be forced? Will the love triangle drive a wedge between the two friends? All these questions are part of the drama aspect of the film, nevertheless, sometimes throughout the movie we realize that this isn't the essence of what Iwai wanted to tell us. Myamoto is merely another paving-stone on the girls' path of growing up, and even though the two might seem to be inseparable, at the end both of them have to walk this path on their own.

Hana is played by Anne Suzuki who already made a name for herself in "Returner" or "Initial D". Hana and her relationship with Myamoto is nice to look at, yet Myamoto himself just remains too shallow. Actor Tomohiro Kaku most of the time just looks stoical and confused and somehow the relationship never gains any momentum because of this. To the movie's credit, this is mainly so, because he has no feelings for Hana. The scenes he shares with Alice are more emotional and imbued with a certain amount of warmth, so that you actually have the feeling to watch a real romance unfold. Hana's love is an unrequited one and so it simply lacks the spirit. The change concerning these feelings towards the end are somewhat confusing to say the least. Alice gives up on her possible love relationship and yet she is not down or regretting her decision, while Hana slowly can arouse feelings for her in Myamoto. The question remains if this is really so or if the characters actually have by far more different feelings than what we get to see. This is something every viewer has to decide for himself as Shunji Iwai somewhat abruptly brings this topic to a finish and shifts his focus on the more important relationship between the two girls, again. Leaving us in a limbo concerning the love story.

In addition to Anne Suzuki, who with her slightly rough character is the more self-confident of the two friends, Yu Aoi is also turning in a credible performance. Her character seems to be more multilayered, even if we get to know her better only later in the movie. The main reason why she is more interesting than Hana is the simple fact that we get to see more of her living conditions. There is a nice insertion with her father, who seems to visit her seldomly, because he got a divorce from Alice's mother. Even though there is some tension between Alice and her father, at the end it's obvious, that they love each other, even when they can't express it in their own language and have to use mandarin Chinese, which Alice interestingly enough doesn't speak. Yet, she intuitively manages to hit the right rising and falling tones of the language that the likes of us laboriously have to learn for months...

Furthermore, Alice also has a little side story with her mother going on, who desperately tries to get a new boyfriend, and thus kicks her daughter out of house, whenever she has a date. Moreover, during the course of the movie Alice is spotted by a talent scout, but the girl soon has to realize, that she has neither the acting skills nor the self confidence that is required to get a job. This changes when in a small magical scene she expresses herself through a small ballet dance performance, which is one of the movie's true highlights.
Hana's living conditions on the other hand remain in the dark. Except from her house, which is filled with lots of flowers, and a short humorous gaze at her mother, we don't get to know much of the girl. However, towards the end we understand that Alice brought her in touch with ballet dancing and helped her to get rid of the shell she hid behind all the time, becoming the person who she is now.
In the end lots of problems and interesting stories are left unfinished, e.g. the plot revolving around the mother or the father of Alice. This may be frustrating for some viewers. But this is exactly Iwai's handwriting: He grants us a peek into the life of his characters and even though there is lots of stuff happening around them, this is merely adding to the movie's authenticity and doesn't serve any special purpose. Which is why the film is not supposed to answer certain questions or solve some of the problems.

Shunji Iwai as always remains true to his style and enchants the viewer with warm and dreamy pictures, which are mainly created by the strong use of soft sunlight shining through windows. The camera movements sometimes remind us of a hand camera, which still is something I can't get used to, but the music by Shunji Iwai himself fits perfectly into the rest, even if some of the piano pieces are a little bit too complex to be used as background music. Classic music is nothing to be listened to passively, but you have to get involved with it in a more active way of listening. This is why a few pieces feel a bit inappropriate.
With its running time of 135 minutes "Hana and Alice" seems to be quite long, but apart from a greater slowdown in the middle the film fortunately proves to be really entertaining and in addition also provides us with a nice subtle humour. As it is typical with Iwai the movie's strength lies in its heart-warming atmosphere, which makes the end product, despite some rather emotional scenes, not really a drama. It's just a movie about the friendship of two girls and their path of becoming mature. At the end, when the ending credits hit the screen you will be strongly satisfied, although you might find it hard to pinpoint why, because "Hana and Alice" surely has some sore points. However, there is something with Iwai's movies that always manages to touch you - like a warm ray of sunshine touching your face...

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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