Seen as part of the Raindance Film Festival
Running Time: 91 mins.
Director: Junya Sakino
Writer: Jeff Mizushima (Screenplay),
Starring: Gaku Hamada. Eugene Kim, Marlane Barnes, Josh Brodis, Samatha Quan, Hiroyuki Watanabe
A Sake-Bomb is a type of drink created when a cup of sake is balanced on chopsticks on a glass of beer. When the table is hit the chopsticks move and the sake falls into the beer and the beer is then drunk in one go. Effectively this is a mixing of East and West (through alcohol) which is what this film hopes to achieve in what is almost a refreshingly new take on a comedy staple the road-trip movie.
Naoto (Hamada) is an unassuming looking chap who works at a brewery in a rural part of Japan. Because his soon-to-retire boss (Denden) considers him the best employee at the brewery Naoto finds himself named as the successor for the business. Before that can happen his boss tells him to take a week off and do something he has always wanted to do so he can settle down and devote his life to brewing alcohol. With this advice in mind Naoto heads to America to track down a former girlfriend who taught him English before disappearing without a trace.
Naoto arrives in LA and heads to his uncle’s (Watanabe) house where he meets his cousin Sebastian (Kim) who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend for various reasons including the fact he is an unemployed porn obsessed loser and something of a self-loathing internet troll who uploads videos attacking American stereotypes of Asians. Sebastian’s father takes Naoto’s quest to meet his ex-girlfriend seriously and, sensing the need for Sebastian to get in touch with his Asian roots and refresh his life, suggests Sebastian travels with Naoto as a guide around California.
The set-up of Sake-Bomb is the typical road-movie where two different guys hit the highways and by-ways of California to get to a specific destination but the journey changes them. This is nothing new. What makes this different are the characters involved and their cultural backgrounds.
Western comedies featuring Asians are not exactly prolific and there are even fewer which use cultural relations and misunderstandings between Americans, Asian-Americans and Japanese as material so this feature does carry some interest for people wanting to see a culture-clash comedy from a different perspective.
The film comes from Junya Sakino, a Japanese director who lived in America for some time, and writer Jeff Mizushima, a Japanese-American. Their cultural backgrounds mean that they are able to effectively succeed in providing some insightful moments that effectively skewer social media trends and common stereotypes from white guys looking for exotic Asian women to cosplayers bubbling with excitement over meeting Naoto (a real Japanese person!!!) and an ignorant sheriff who confuses Japanese and Chinese stereotypes and boils everything down to oriental massages.
Other than the focus on East Asian culture and the use of social media the film is pretty formulaic as the boys get involved in different situations on their way to see Naoto’s ex-girlfriend. For a road-trip movie to really work we need characters to care about and this is where the film hits a bumpy patch.
The problems come from Sebastian, a character given to vitriolic rants of such force that whatever interesting thoughts he does have are lost in a sea of aggression and self-hatred.
The film gives him space to sound-off on Asian stereotypes like submissive women and Asians being bad at sports as he records his monologues for videos he posts on the internet. During these moments, shot direct-to-camera, we witness him work himself into a lather telling us things we already know and in a way so offensive and ham-fisted it would most likely get him banned from most video streaming sites and lots of negative comments.
At first I felt like he could be a character moulded on the younger and angrier Eddie Murphy of the 80’s, a comedian using vituperative to smash racial and sexual stereotypes and smuggle in sharp, intelligent and funny commentary on race-relations but the script never quite reached that level in terms of the way Sebastien acts and develops. This could have been problematic, a real turn-off, but Eugene Kim is charismatic enough to prevent him from turning into a disaster and he does get some redemption towards the end.
Perhaps the most incisive comedy and commentary comes not from the social commentator but the social outsider, Gaku Hamada’s character Naoto. He is essential in balancing out the negativity of Sebastian and the situations he gets into exposes the difference between fantasies westerners have of exotic Asians and the realities. As mentioned in other film reviews the chap radiates an innocence and good-nature so he is utilised as the light to Sebastian’s darkness, the civilising influence who is meant to bring Sebastian back from the depths of hatred but the more interesting moments in the film were when he was confronted by strange westerners and their adoration for Japanese stereotypes. Despite my antipathy for Hamada, he does a good job adding a bit of much-needed sweetness to the film. To be honest, more of him would have been welcome because he delivers great performances in the key dramatic moments.
Unfortunately I did not quite buy the relationship dynamics between Naoto and Sebastien because the latter was almost relentlessly unpleasant it almost derailed the film. Watch the road-trip movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Both Steve Martin and John Candy are playing characters are both a little over the top in terms of their odd-behaviour respectively but the audience can still identify with and like them because whatever their quirks, they are evenly balanced with lightness and humanity. Here’s another suggestion, watch The Drudgery Train and see how to write an unpleasant but sympathetic character who the audience can root for.
Overall the film is well-shot and with some moments of fun and things to say. Junya Sakino manages to make everything look good and some of the central cast, Gaku Hamada in particular, do charm.