Eye of the beholder
I'm guessing the secret to Sigrid Andrea Bernardo's success with Kita Kita turns on two things: 1) She wasn't looking to make the usual romantic comedy and 2) Audiences were sick to death of the usual romantic comedy and wanted something else.
That said Bernardo wasn't exactly trying to reinvent the wheel. Blind girl meets penniless man? Charlie Chaplin turned the idea into one of his most commercially successful comedies back in 1931 (arguably my favorite for the record). Pretty woman with less-than-pretty man? Beauty and the Beast, 1740.
Bernardo does bring a few fairly fresh tricks to the party, like setting the story in Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido prefecture. Akira Kurosawa shot his adaptation of The Idiot in this province because of all the regions in Japan it most resembled Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg best; possibly Ms. Bernardo's biggest mistake is in not shooting in winter when the city is (I'm told) especially magical--the Snow Festival sculptures are as large as buildings, and if you take a train to the east coast you can watch ice drifting past the shoreline.
There's still plenty of beauty in summer: the (as seen in the movie) toylike clock tower, the Fushimi Inari Shrine's rows of scarlet torii gates, the brilliant flower fields of Biei.
Alessandra Del Rosi's Lea strides past everything on gangly fawnlike legs, her dark-coffee complexion and freshfaced beauty the perfect contrast to the city's brightly primary colors. As her Romeo, Empoy Marquez's Tonyo looks anything but with his oddly assembled head that says 'comic relief' more than 'romantic lead.'
But why should the movie's romantic lead look like a romantic lead? Why can't he be a schlub like the rest of us? Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Dolphy--were they good-looking? Didn't we root for them because they were so unhandsome, because they represented us winning in life and getting the girl through trickery through resourcefulness through not a little humor? The fact that the girl's blind only makes the whole setup a touch more plausible, even if the story leading up to her disability--temporary blindness my ass--seems unlikely.
What makes the whole picture sing is Bernardo simply locking down the camera and letting the two leads improvise: Marquez teasing and flirting, Del Rossi responding with a slap or shove or startled shriek. The two actors are clearly enjoying each other's company (if not they're giving a fine performance of enjoying each other's company); all the director has to do is string the resulting footage together and--voila! Romantic comedy worth hundreds of millions in the boxoffice.
Probably not as simple as all that. The director needs to know enough to put as little in the way of her actors as possible (the simple camera setups capturing the lovers' interactions recall Chaplin) needs to know enough to listen to her independent filmmaker instincts (let the scenes run on a beat, cut to your own not some conventional rhythm) rather than her commercial studio instincts (O wait a minute--she's never directed a studio movie). She needs the deftness to introduce a homage to Disney's Lady and the Tramp--Lea and Tonyo eating noodles together--without anyone being the wiser and still make the scene work, comically and romantically.
Perfectly possible that Bernardo didn't have her actors improvise, that the lovers' scenes together were as carefully scripted and choreographed as any Hong Kong martial arts fight sequence. The trick then would be to make it all seem spontaneous despite all that precision--no easy feat.
With the movie's second half (skip this paragraph if you plan to watch) Bernardo introduces a straight-out-of nowhere accident that changes all (I have to admit just prior to the collision I was checking my watch and wondering: that all there is to this story?). Turns out the director, having finished sketching the broad outlines of Lea's love story, intended to scribble in textures shadings nuances. We learn of a creepier less savory side to Tonyo as he follows Lea to her job of playing constantly cheerful tour guide, follows her home to her role as unhappily neglected girlfriend. We learn of a reason why (other than Lea's beauty) Tonyo would want to approach her, a reason why (other than Lea's blindness) Tonyo would be bold enough to even consider approaching her. Do we forgive Tonyo for the stalking? I can understand if people have difficulty though I mostly did; so apparently does Lea.
I liked the picture. I bought the premise (despite the 'temporary' crap) bought the unlikely couple--bought them because they were so unlikely--bought the somewhat controversial second half because beyond the sunshine and fun there must be a flip side, for balance.
And when in the movie's closing sequence Lea puts on a blindfold it feels both unlikely and totally justified. I've been there--you lost something you valued (though not as much as you realize you should have) and you'll do anything even cripple yourself temporarily to somehow bring it back.
First published in Businessworld 8.11.17