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film review

Masami Nagasawa and Ryuhei Matsuda star in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish.

There's a blackly funny moment in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest film where an alien-possessed adolescent girl, who has killed her family, two cops and now a posse of government agents, is confronted by the journalist who is shepherding her through human society.

"You can't keep doing that," he expostulates.

A filmmaker who first established himself with horror movies, Kurosawa (who has no relation to the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa) explores new approaches to sci-fi and fantasy in recent films, blending his dramatic (Tokyo Sonata) and genre practices. The gentle Journey to the Shore of 2015 was an ethereal and sentimental ghost story about a widow visited by her late husband – think Truly Madly Deeply without a sense of humour. The French-language Daguerreotype, his first film shot outside Japan and an entry in TIFF's inaugural juried Platform program in 2016, was a fantastical psychological thriller about a 19th-century photographer and his daughter.

With Before We Vanish, he returns again to genre, with a small budget and a lot of deadpan, offering a low-key but amusing Japanese approach to the perennial theme of alien invasion. There's nothing to take very seriously about the action as three aliens disguised as humans stumble about trying to take over the planet – unless you want to probe the contemporary anxieties that any sci-fi apocalypse inevitably reveals about the society that produced it.

The film unfolds in two parallel stories. The young graphic artist Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is called to a hospital to retrieve her husband, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), who has been found incoherent and wandering the streets; she has little patience for a man she knows has been cheating on her but finds the incompetent new version of her husband may be an improvement. Meanwhile, the cynical journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) probes the disappearance of a teenage girl who has murdered her family and meets up with a cheerful youth who swears he is an alien sent to take over the world and destroy all humans.

How? By making a person think about a key concept – family, work or property – and then hijacking the very thought, the aliens learn about this world but strip the humans of their wits. (The youth is the most competent and human-like of the aliens; the parents of the boy whose body he has possessed are now babbling idiots.)

This almost Wittgensteinian reflection on our relationship with language and meaning is the best part of the film and is wrapped up, sentimentally but convincingly so, in an ending that asks what would happen if one asked these voracious outsiders to consider the concept of love.

The shambling and mainly unpleasant characters, low-budget pyrotechnics and rather obvious commentary on social alienation are less engaging, but as an experiment in blending the minute character observations of Kurosawa's dramas into a pure genre plot, Before We Vanish does succeed. The cast of aliens, led by Matsuda, has great fun playing the humans-in-training, but it's Nagasawa's defeated young wife who really stands out as the performance that elevates the film.

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