A Balance (Film Movement Plus, NR)

Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), an investigative reporter for a television station. is working on a story about a girl named Hiromi who died by suicide. The girl’s father (Hasebe, played by Yuya Matsuura) says the cause was bullying, but there are also claims that Hiromi was having a rather public affair with one of her teachers, with multiple witnesses saying they saw the two engaged in improper acts on school grounds. Then Mr. Yano, the teacher accused of being sexually involved with Hiromi, kills himself, leaving a note stating that his death is a protest against the unfounded accusations leveled at him. Of course the school denies any responsibility for anything, because that’s the playbook for bureaucracies in self-protective mode, but two deaths is a lot to overlook.

Yuko moonlights at the cram school run by her father, Masahi (Ken Mitsuishi), and her black-and-white morality is put to the test when discovers a student (Mei, played by Yumi Kawai) cheating on an exam. She doesn’t embarrass the miscreant, however, but declares that everyone will have to retake the test, then privately offers Mei extra tutoring so she can learn the material. Along the way, she learns that Mei lives with her widowed father Tetsuya (Masahiro Umeda), that the family is poor, and that Tetsuya is neglectful and may also be abusive.

Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance has aspects of both a social problems film (the unifying topic is Japan’s culture of shaming, so yet another thread to deal with) and a detective thriller (will Yuko get to the bottom of any of these scandals?), but the pace is too slow to build visceral excitement (and at 153 minutes this film is  longer than it needs to be). Instead, the main interest is in seeing how Yuko goes about her investigation (which is mostly quite professional and even sedate, the rare act of aggression coming from a disgruntled neighbor who turns a hose on Yuko) and also how she grows as a human being in the process.

It’s quite the tangled web of alleged bad behavior and resulting or impending tragedies that Yuko must unravel, but is young enough and determined enough to believe she can get to the bottom of it. She’s also naïve enough to think that some kind of clear truth will ultimately be revealed, and you have to wonder if she will ever achieve what the title specifies: an ability to balance the inevitable frailties of human beings against the desire to hold them to the highest standards of honor.

Often it feels like A Balance has enough plot for three movies, because there’s one more big twist coming up before the hour mark—a wrongdoing involving Masahi’s cram school, and one for which he is directly responsible. When Yuko confronts her father, she’s actually scary, although very softspoken, particularly since she’s recording his response on her phone. Much as I find the act she uncovered to be appalling, her response seems unnecessarily threatening and hostile and quite unlike her professional and empathetic nterview demeanor when working for the TV station.

A Balance has the look of an understated television documentary of the kind Yuko is trying to create. It’s shot with handheld camera but is pretty bearable in that regard, i.e., you don’t get attention-grabbing shakycam but a technique presumably adopted to emphasize the television connection and perhaps also to facilitate shooting in real locations that would be awkward for a large camera and tripod. Cintematographer Kenji Nogushi sticks to a muted palette, with lots of dull blues and greens. Even people’s clothing is conservative and dull, and the lighting is fairly low throughout, which has the effect of damping the colors further. | Sarah Boslaugh A Balance is available for streaming from Film Movement Plus

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