The jolts and shocks arrive from odd angles in writer-director Koji Fukada’s wondrously haunting family drama, Harmonium. So don’t buy this synopsis as the whole bowl of noodles: A perfunctorily married couple and their young daughter, going through the motions of their prosaic lives, are shaken wide awake by the arrival of a mysterious stranger. More clichés to take with a pinch of sea salt: The interloper is a recent parolee, and an old acquaintance of the husband.
Thankfully, nothing in this film (which won a prize at Cannes a year ago and debuted locally at CAAMFest in March) unfolds quite the way you’d expect, owing to a setting that is at once naturalistic and stripped down and has the deft, disturbing effect of insinuating Fukada’s parable under our skin.
Harmonium, opening Friday, June 23 at the 4-Star (2200 Clement in S.F.), cleaves into two halves, set eight years apart. Cunningly acted by Kanji Furitachi and Mariko Tsutsui as the indifferently marrieds and Tadanobu Asano as the Man in White (who suggests at different times an angel, messiah or emblem of newborn innocence), the movie gradually demolishes its characters’ rote devotion to their self- and socially imposed responsibilities, relationships and routines.
Harmonium is not an argument for anarchy, however, or conversely an assertion of moral imperatives. Not when Fukada skillfully keeps the coin spinning between redemption and punishment, and self-assertion and self-sacrifice. (And for those fascinated by the presumed obligations of the individual in Japanese society, it’s a happy coincidence that the summer BAMPFA retrospective Samurai Rebellion: Toshiro Mifune, Screen Icon opened last week.)