Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (2004)

Author: Patrick Galvan
June 30, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

About one year ago, I saw a movie from South Korea named My Girl and I, about an unpopular dweeb who falls in love with the prettiest girl in school, maintains an up-and-down relationship with her, and continues to carry her memory with him long after her death, at a young age, from leukemia. In short, I thought the film had good performances and some very nice moments, but its narrative was too quirky and fast-moving for its own good. Still, it wasn't an objectionable idea for a movie. As you can imagine, when I learned My Girl and I was in fact a remake of a phenomenally popular Japanese movie, I was instantly curious. (A personal anecdote: this discovery didn't exactly surprise me, seeing as how both South Korea and Japan seem to relish in romantic fables where the feisty, good-looking girl ends up sick with some dreaded disease.) I tracked down the Japanese original, called Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, and compared the two films back to back.

The unfortunate news is that my verdict is more or less the same. Once again, the acting is solid, and the movie does have some genuinely touching scenes (most of them early on), but the story's way of moving around is rather problematic. This time, instead of zipping by too fast and not allowing individual scenes to register their intended impact, the picture drags its feet and then idles about, spending too much time on the solitary moments and overworking whatever emotional content they might have offered. The picture means well (don't all romantic dramas?), but it did not accomplish much in terms of stirring up my inner romantic.

The story is essentially identical to its remake: two students meet in school, fall in love, and one of them dies of leukemia. The boy, nicknamed Saku (Mirai Moriyama), is somewhat of a nerd and the girl, Aki (Masami Nagasawa), is the ambitious go-getter. Around their story is a subplot involving the boy's uncle, who secretly loved one of their recently deceased teachers, and a little girl acting as an impromptu messenger. It sounds simple enough, but the narrative takes a more complex approach. Everything is told via a series of flashbacks as the boy and the little messenger girl (now adults engaged to be married—played by Takao Osawa and Kou Shibasaki respectively) try to discover meaning in their dead companion's last days. The basic structure is a character goes to a familiar place, remembers what happened there several decades earlier, and then awakens with some sort of ironic realization.

Writing negatively about this movie is somewhat of an unpleasant task, for the filmmakers are attempting to do something fresh with an old-fashioned premise. The concept of flashbacks being inserted for ironic reveal sounds noble enough, and the ending, though not emotionally effective, does have some thought behind it. So why does the picture go wrong? What is it about this narrative strategy that ultimately undoes any potential resonance for emotion?

I'm going to venture a guess and point to purism; perhaps the film is clinging too closely to its source text. I have not read the original novel, titled Socrates in Love, but if my experience with Japanese romantic fiction has any weight, it was more than likely told in first person. And the flashback-to-present narrative probably worked much better in the written format. Again, I cannot comment on whether or not the novel was any more or less effective a piece of storytelling, but in first-person, the audience shares the mind of their protagonist and understands all of the personal realizations, all of the ironic denouements, from within that perspective. It's not really a question of liking the character; it's a matter of perceiving the world from within their own head. Conveying inner monologues is an enormously difficult task to pull off in a motion picture, which is predominately about visuals. Not to mention the movie sometimes switches focus between the adult Saku and his new fiancée. I'm sure we were supposed to feel for both of them and share their understanding of the past, but in the end, I felt like an outsider, reading up on someone's obituary as opposed to sharing the experience of someone who knew them intimately.

The pacing does not help much, either. Unlike a novel, which can be digested at one's own pace, a film demands its audience to stay focused and attentive throughout, no matter how ponderously it moves. In this case, we're forced to endure 138 minutes of slowly paced drama, which would be a good thing—a wonderful thing!—if the scenes packed emotional resonance. And they do…early on. The opening flashback material— with the boy and the girl meeting, the latter flirting with the former, the two of them embarking on some misadventures—does have some touching moments. The way in which the boy finally asks out his charming new friend and her calm, casual response, is, for lack of a better word, cute. It's make-believe, but it's enjoyable make-believe. There's also some surprisingly (and, in some regards, revealing) charm to be found in the scene where they identify a number of famous American movies as personal favorites. But when the picture starts changing gears for the emotionally devastating and the ironic reveals (why the fiancée has a limp leg; why the girlfriend got all upset over a cancer joke mentioned on the radio), things take a turn for the sluggish. The reveals would mean a lot if we could share the characters' thoughts and ideas (I remind you of the first-person narrative), but if we cannot, everything feels disconnected.

And the slow pacing does deaden the intended impact. Another problem is that one of our representatives for emotion, the character of the fiancee, feels completely unnecessary. When we see the little girl in the flashbacks, it's so late in the story and her scenes are so sparingly inserted, that ultimately, the character feels more like a trivia point than an actual participant in the narrative.

If Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World had spent more time on the past, less time on the present, and paced itself a little better (removed the fiancée and focused more on the Saku's point of view), it might have built up a greater impact.

There might be another explanation to my less-than-enthusiastic response—one that's rather difficult to explain and yet I shall nonetheless attempt to give it some justice.

Let me make a statement that I'm sure will cause everyone to roll their eyes: I am not Japanese. To make such a confession on a website designed primarily for English-speakers may seem banal and trivial, and yet, I feel it is not. I probably know more about Japanese cinema, history, and culture than most of the western world, but I cannot claim to see the world through the eyes of a Japanese person. Subtitles can only bridge so many gaps—cultural ones not among them. But there are moments in foreign cinema when even someone not molded by that particular culture can see hints of the country's history and nature. To draw a point based on a scene in this film: you would have a hard time selling a romantic drama to a western audience in which the boy and the girl do not kiss until near the end of the third act—especially when the girl is clad in a hospital gown, has lost her hair, and the two of them have to press lips with a quarantine sheet between them (After all, when Ali MacGraw started wasting away in Arthur Hiller's "Love Story," every inch she came closer to death, she became all the more beautiful.). And that's to name an obvious example without talking about behavior and ideas. So there might be a good deal of resonance to a picture like this that will make more sense to someone who has lived and grown up in and viscerally understood the historical culture of Japan.

Then again, who am I to say? I cannot speak for the Japanese people; as an American reviewer, all I can do is describe what I see before me and interpret it according to my existing knowledge and my own visceral reaction. But the possibility nevertheless exists.

There are good merits apart from the acting. Noboru Shinoda's cinematography is incredible. The ending, set in Australia (the eponymous center of the world), is worth waiting for just to look at. It's not just because of the scenery; Shinoda uses the right combination of lenses and lighting techniques to give the denouement a visual sense of amazement. And the first scene, with two characters silhouetted against the rain, their backs to us, is also pretty to behold. Director Isao Yukisada also makes some good moments using slow-motion, resisting the common temptation of numerous close-ups, and a few splendid tracking shots to keep his film visually interesting.

But even these virtues cannot redeem a sluggish story. Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World has the noblest of ambitions, but, for this westerner, it's not very moving.