This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
In Love Life, and just like in 2016's Harmonium, Kōji Fukada takes intense tragedy and injects it into seemingly banal domesticity. In both films, the results are electrifying, but whereas in Harmonium the filmmaker found mystery and PTSD stemming from a child's accident, in Love Life, he pinpoints and hones in on the cutting, crushing weight of grief caused by a youngster's death. Love Life offers no easy answers or routes out of such a chilling situation, and whilst its increasingly odd tangents later in the story cause its climax to underwhelm, Fukada's latest remains a haunting, spellbinding depiction of severe, inescapable grief.
Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and her husband Jiro (Kento Nagayama) live with their son Keita (Tetta Shimada), born in Taeko's first marriage, in a peaceful suburb of Japan. Their apartment is a warm and inviting place, a genial arena for the three family members, Jiro's parents, and their friends. Fukada sketches this organic world and the relationships within it swiftly, but with great detail and life. The love between these people feels tangible, Keita's bubbly personality links everyone joyfully together, and the usual familial tensions are apparent in Jiro's discerning father. This standard domesticity—simple in appearance but bursting with human emotion—makes the subsequent events of Love Life that much more jolting and resonant.
With family and friends celebrating Jiro's father's birthday at their apartment, tragedy strikes, as an unattended Keita slips into a bath full of water and drowns. The cataclysmic nature of this seismic moment and its repercussions never vanishes from Love Life—the driving force of grief is ever present. Ghosts haunt Taeko, with the tremors of memories of Keiko haunting the apartment. This grieving mother loses her sensibilities and is blanketed by a blizzard of grief, framed by DOP Hideo Yamamoto in obscured or fading reflections. Taeko's very existence slips away in front of our very eyes.
Love Life is impressive in this remarkable depiction of grief. It moves glacially at times, just like the process of loss itself, which is an all-consuming, spiteful, slowly spreading aura, barely visible but always present. Fukada shows real assurance, just as he did in Harmonium, in evocatively depicting the debilitation and inescapability of the grieving process, although he occasionally lurches into melodrama, moments which sit uneasily alongside the other, more assured dramatic elements.
Where Love Life falters is in its latter stages. The appearance of Keita's real father Park, who has been absent for his whole life, is a compelling addition, with Taeko striving to help him as he struggles to find work. However, Fukada adds head-scratching elements to this particular arc that feel unrealistic, putting Taeko in increasingly bizarre situations. The result is never catastrophic though, and Love Life rights itself assuredly by its closing.
Kimura as Taeko is exceptional; she drives Love Life and its themes and emotions. Her performance is largely physical, because of the energy- and life-sapping nature of grief, but also because of her sign language conversations with Park. From this, silence becomes powerful, utilised by Fukada for great dramatic effect. As Love Life returns to its faultless grounding by its conclusion, a question arises from its central characters: ‘What do we do now'? True to real life, there is no grand finale here, only ambiguity coupled with some form of hope for brighter days. This authenticity is where Love Life's biggest strength lies.
Love Life releases in UK cinemas on 15th September