7.0

Man From Reno

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<i>Man From Reno</i>

Man From Reno is a gorgeous film with a central mystery that never quite lives up to its cinematography. Which is not to say the film is hollow beneath the surface—in fact, it gradually reveals a willingness to explore some interesting questions about identity, flirting in subtle (and unsubtle) ways with race, diaspora, and gender—but where the aesthetics and the performance of lead Ayako Fujitani are delivered with confident ease, the film’s themes and plot mechanics keep getting in each other’s way.

Probably taking a little too long to reveal that the mystery at the center of his film is in fact neatly tied to its exploration of identity, writer-director Dave Boyle creates the sense for much of The Man from Reno that there are actually two things going on at once: (1) a series of conversations between Japanese-American, Japanese, and non-Japanese characters about Japanese, American, and immigrant identities that (2) happen on the fringes of a fairly mundane noir narrative that revolves around a MacGuffin with an identity crisis all its own. It eventually turns out that these two threads are parallel—though saying how would spoil several late-film revelations—but until this is explained, the unclear relationship is distracting for much of the film, and is compounded by the fact that the mystery plot is itself told through two parallel narratives.

In the first, county sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) hits a man (Hiroshi Watanabe) with his car one foggy night; the man disappears from the hospital before he can be questioned. Then a dead body (a different man) is found face down in a swamp in Paul’s jurisdiction a few days later. In the second narrative, mystery novelist Aki Akahori (Fujitani), having blown off a publicity tour to visit friends in San Francisco, meets a handsome man (Kazuki Kitamura) at her hotel and eventually spends the night with him. He later disappears, leaving behind a suitcase filled with clothing and…a head of lettuce. Paul and Aki meet when the former shows up to question the latter about the swampy dead body—identified as the man for whom she has filed a missing person report.

The parts of Man From Reno that deal with race and the immigrant experience are not rigorous in a political or academic sense, but they do raise several interesting ideas, mostly revolving around degrees of misunderstanding. Things are mistaken for other things, and things are declared to be what they are not, mimicking the ways people assume what other people are and aren’t based on race, gender, and circumstance. For example, a key plot point involves Paul mispronouncing the mispronunciation of a racist witness who overheard a suspect using the Japanese word for “turtle”; Aki tells him he’s looking for the Japanese word for “God.” Or: The man Paul hit with his car visits Aki and mistakes the head of lettuce from her lover’s suitcase for a head of cabbage. Or: an ex-crime lord declares that his terminal illness has made him give up crime. Perhaps most telling of all, Aki explains the melon drop grift, where Japanese tourists to America are made to believe they have damaged a melon (which apparently cost $50), and having no sense of what melons cost in the U.S., the tourists pay up.

After all, it’s a misunderstanding which draws Aki into a dangerous world of crime, and Boyle seems to have a lot of fun portraying her approach to investigation and problem solving. She’s not suddenly an action hero—and she’s definitely concerned for her own safety—but she finds the plot unfolding around her fascinating and can’t help herself from getting pulled deeper into a series of potentially dangerous circumstances. Grace-noted by several amusing bits of “action” where Aki fends off interlopers in obvious, mundane ways, her transformation from a despondent author of novels about a crime investigator into an actual crime investigator emphasizes the fact that Paul’s side of the story features no light bulb moment, just a lot of boring old police work. Here, Fujitani is wonderful, imbuing Aki with a depth that is so much more physical than the lines on a page.

One of the best scenes in The Man from Reno features the villain, finally revealed, not explaining any rationale or gloating, just acting simply and bluntly cruel. The circumstances of this revelation (and the way Aki can relate) make much of what seemed extraneous earlier in the film come into sharp focus—as is the case in many neo-noir mysteries of its kind. Still, all of the plot machinations seem protracted, so much so that one can’t help but wonder if there was a slightly more elegant way to pace things. Once the film makes its point, its point is plain—and from there proceeds an extended denouement that doesn’t enhance that point so much as act as a coda for a mystery that wasn’t particularly well-etched to begin with. So, as pleasant an experience as the film is, it doesn’t quite finagle all of its threads into a coherent whole—which probably wasn’t the point.

Director: Dave Boyle
Writers: Joel Clark, Michael Lerman, Dave Boyle
Starring: Ayako Fujitani, Pepe Serna, Hiroshi Watanabe, Masame Kosaka, Elisha Skorman
Release Date: March 27, 2015


Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.