@SGIFF 2015: Review - Happy Hour

          With a runtime of 5 hours 17 minutes, the title Happy Hour may be a misleading one. Admittedly, this reviewer approached the screening with reluctance: I seriously contemplated if it was possible to spin a review viewing only half the film. As I walked into a near full theater, I’m sure the rest of the audience was thinking the same thing. How many, I wondered, would be able to endure the next five hours?

          As time puttered by, such thoughts vanished.

           Happy Hour focuses on the friendship between 4 middle-aged Japanese women and how it is strained when one friend’s divorce compels each to re-evaluate their own lives, and their relationship with each other. It is an outwardly Japanese, but centrally universal movie that captures modern-mid life, with all its struggles and revelations.

          Brevity is key to cinema, and while Happy Hour is slow, it is certainly not dilute. The film has an eye for detail and sensitivity to the understandings behind our everyday lives which allows it to pack its scenes with meaning, such that even with its length, it never seems strained. The film draws insight from the ordinary, using a conversation on a bus, a book event, or a dinner with friends as material to develop its characters and plot, and each scene is just right: it makes its point, and moves on before it becomes a burden. This is not to say the film is perfect in this regard: there are scattered pieces that seem to extend well beyond requirement, sometimes to the point of repetition or awkwardness, but they are few enough to dull the richness of this work.

          Rather, Happy Hour is long because it has so much to say, and because it embraces rather than simplifies complexity. On first sight, the 4 central characters fall neatly into stereotypes, but as the plot develops, new perspectives continually challenge our impressions, and each character matures such that we are left with 4 very different individuals, with a very different dynamic at the end. Even the supporting casts are well-developed as characters: none feel like plot devices or placeholders. The film is apparently about divorce, but is merely a catalyst; it really is about the unfolding drama of each of the 4 characters and their constellations of relationships. Happy Hour’s length isn’t its weakness; it is its strength. With the patience and breadth afforded by time, the plot is allowed to develop organically and take detours, growing out of each individual’s motivations, and changing courses as each character comes to their own realizations.

          Its richness and patience lend an air of realism that makes this film about mid-life crises emotionally resonant and profound, and utterly relatable. With each character and their circumstances, both main and supporting, fleshed out in full, the audience is allowed to engage with these characters like real people. The dialogue never seems scripted: the writer has an incredibly precise understanding of what people are like and how they speak. And the cast, particularly the 4 female leads Tanaka Sachie, Kikuchi Hazuki, Mihara Maiko and Kawamura Rira play their roles with such emotional honesty that they melt into their roles. That, I believe, is an actor’s finest distinction.

          Happy Hour is a mature and compassionate film, and as we sit through the ebb and flow of the character’s lives on screen, it is not difficult to see ourselves in them. It is about pain and joy, about expectations and disappointment, about belonging and alienation. And as each character fumbles through the entanglement of circumstance towards their personal truths and happiness, it reminds us that we aren’t alone in our urbane struggles, and we grow stronger and wiser with life.

          It was almost 1am when the film ended. And yet, as I looked back, I could not help but smile.

          Everyone was still there.
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