Twixt Calm & Passion (2001)
Nicholas Driscoll
April 10, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

I never thought I would hear Enya music in a Toho film. But then, I never knew that Toho would film a movie partially in Italy, with a Chinese actress as one of the leads. 2001's Reisei to Jonetsu no Aida, or, as it is translated on the Japanese release, Twixt Calm & Passion, was that film, and it was full of surprises for me. I couldn't read the kanji on the cover, however, so I keep thinking of it under its Italian title, which was clearly emblazoned on the DVD—Calmi Cuori Appassionati. When I put it in my player, I was surprised by the Toho logo, and when I started eating my random movie snack of the day, I was surprised to realize I was munching Pizza Margarita Pringles—an Italian Selection flavor. That's not even counting the surprises in the film, which is a beautiful romance film that caught me quite off-balance with its grandeur—and its sometimes convoluted plot.

Junsei Agata (Japanese TV star Yutaka Takenouchi) is the young grandson of a Japanese artist, and he has decided to take the rare road of art restoration. In order to fulfill his ambition, he has gone to Italy to study under the masters. He is talented in his craft, and his beautiful teacher Giovanna (Valeria Cavalli) gives him special care, boosting his career while making him the subject of a number of nude paintings. Junsei, meanwhile, is trying to forget about a particularly passionate and intensely close relationship he had had with a half-Japanese woman named Aoi (Honk Kong actress Kelly Chen, Infernal Affairs III), which had ended badly some time previous. However, Junsei is one of those fellows that romance movies love to dote upon—he cannot extract her from his heart, even with the equally obsessive efforts coming from his jealous girlfriend Memi (Ryoko Shinohara, 2006's Suite Dreams). As tends to happen in these films, apparently entirely through felicitous circumstance, Aoi happens to live in nearby Milan, working at a jewelry shop. Junsei zooms off to see her, and inevitably meets his replacement in the form of rich, dull Marvin Lai (Michael Wong, City Hunter). Emotionally torn, he returns to his studio only to discover it crawling with policemen. Turns out someone decided to help him touch up the expensive Cigoli painting he was working on—with a knife. The studio closes from the scandal, and Junsei returns to Japan—but his heart never leaves Aoi. From there, through his brooding and the compulsively nosey efforts of his girlfriend Memi, he begins to discover facts he never knew about the events behind the last days of his relationship with Aoi. Once again he changes the direction of his life, with one last hope consuming his existence—a promise he made with Aoi ten years prior.

The story is long and full of twists as flashbacks and flash-forwards clutter the narrative with increasing regularity. It's never exactly boring, but it does become confusing as occasionally I wasn't quite sure if some given event was supposed to be in the present or occurring only as a memory of one of the characters. The romance is of the ridiculously obsessed kind, much like the one in Crying Out for Love, At the Center of the World (2004). Once again, this all-consuming vision of love is championed as a superior sort—the idea of one right person and all-enduring affection. It's rather disturbing to me, really, but it makes for a good story. The love presented here is also of the more sexualized kind—you are warned. While there is never any actual nudity—even painted nudity is usually cleverly blocked—still, the sexual acts simulated on-screen are uncomfortably graphic for my tastes, with plenty of lashing about and ecstatic body parts.

Characters are fairly complex, with Junsei receiving the most fully faceted personality. Takenouchi is quite likable, and his carved, manly face complete with cleft chin is well removed from the usual effeminate studmuffins of Japanese cinema. His acting captures Takenouchi's awkwardness and aching heart pretty well, although it's all pretty familiar from the other Japanese romances I have seen. Kelly Chen is more impressive, pulling off joyous moments and teary ones equally well, complete with streaming teardrops and that cute nose of hers that turns pink as her emotions swell. Both she and Takenouchi have to act in several languages; Chen's English is more credible than Takenouchi's, while Takenouchi's Italian (at least to my ear) sounds more impressive. Chen's Japanese comes off pretty well—I noticed the accent, and she spoke a little slower than a native, but it sounded good. Her character, however, is not as well developed, and her motives are sometimes downright baffling—the events leading up to the ending had me barking at the screen in complete incredulity as to her choices. They seemed largely motivated just to up the suspense to lead up to the movie-magic conclusion, but it is to the film's credit that I cared enough about the characters to be frustrated with the way their relationship was heading.

It's worth noting that, when the actors speak in their heavily-accented English, the English subtitles dutifully disappear. It's usually okay, but occasionally the subs would have been appreciated, although it never gets as bad as the similarly-themed Japanese-Chinese romance, 2004's Last Love First Love.

It's a real treat to see the Italian actors with the Japanese, and they really add a lot to the film. While Aoi's friend Daniela, as portrayed by Silvia Ferreri, is a bit annoying, she's not particularly unrealistic, and Valeria Cavalli's turn as Junsei's teacher is played with grace—indeed, I felt that all of the Italian actors, despite their small parts, were a credit to the film. Michael Wong as Aoi's boyfriend Marvin, however, gives the weakest performance of the film. His delivery is almost monotone and never seems engaged except in one brief moment of explosive frustration.

The music is really beautiful in this film—even if you don't like Enya. The orchestrated motifs are gorgeous and work beautifully to pull in and immerse the viewer in the experience. The Enya tracks are somewhat awkward—Celtic new age music in Italy? Still, they are pleasant enough. Some of the other minor themes with acoustic guitars are less memorable, but serviceable.

Matching the grandeur of some of the themes is the beauty of Italy. The cinematography takes great advantage of the sprawling, old-school awe of these history-infused cities. The contrast with the plain concrete busyness of the scenes in Japan is really jarring and helps define a somewhat otherworldly feel to parts of the film.

This film impressed me. There is so much beauty in this film, and so much of it is well-done, it's hard not to respect it. On the other hand, some elements of the story were gnarled and the film ultimately left me feeling somewhere twixt impressed and unsettled. I can only partially recommend this film, although really it's worth seeing for the beauty alone.