2021 / 127m - Japan
Sci-fi, Drama
Arc poster

One picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes that means a poster tells you pretty much all you need to know about a film. I had never heard of Kei Ishikawa's Arc [Aaku] before, hadn't seen any buzz online, not even a peep or mention on the sites and socials I follow to keep up with Asian cinema. But when I saw the poster for the film, I immediately knew this was something I needed to see. Turns out my instinct didn't let me down. I'm not sure why this film didn't get noticed so far, but those who love a balanced mix of arthouse and genre will no doubt find something to love here.

screencap of Arc [Aaku]

This past decade there's been a clear uptick of arthouse/genre crossovers, though many of them started from a clearer arthouse perspective and ended up adding genre elements as a kind of garnish. As someone with a stronger affinity for genre cinema, these films have always felt a little half-hearted. With Arc, Ishikawa seems to be aiming for a more balanced mix, though not a constant one. The film is split into different timeliness, and each timeline has its own particular feel. Some are more arthouse-leaning, while others have much stronger genre impulses.

Arc is part of a niche that is using singular, well-defined sci-fi concepts to construct a derived vision of the future. Because it is rather conceptual the overall sci-fi feel can be quite minimal, Ishikawa fixes that with stark styling choices that give the film a more post-contemporary feel. I still believe this is a bit of a cop-out, but plenty of time and effort went into developing the rather unique tech/setup that sits at the core of the film, so in the end I wasn't really all that bothered by it. Just don't go in expecting a full-blown technical and cultural (r)evolutionary vision of the future, you won't find that here.

Rina is a young and promising dancer. She's discovered by Ema, the CEO of Bodyworks, a company that turns the bodies of deceased people into everlasting art sculptures. She wants to use Rina's dancing skills for very different purposes (namely creating the poses of the sculptures through an elaborate ritual). Rina is hired and in time takes over Ema's role in the company. Meanwhile, Ema's brother is working on a project that effectively stops the aging process. The procedure is a big hit, but the price and availability will divide society into those who live out their lives and those who seek immortality.

screencap of Arc [Aaku]

Visually there is a lot to love here. The first half of the film is very colorful, sporting a strong yet stylish neon palette. The dance/ritual scenes are well choreographed and edited, the framing is meticulous and the human artwork looks stunning. Most of the second half then is shot in a lavish black-and-white. It looks stunning too, but not quite as overpowering as the colorful look from before. In any other film, I probably would've raved about the B&W cinematography, but because of the direct comparison, I felt just a tad disappointed. File this under extreme nitpicking though, and more arthouse-leaning people will probably before the second half.

The soundtrack is a bit more classic in nature, though it does contain some subtle, contemporary touches. It's definitely not as outspoken as the cinematography, and it also makes less of a lasting impact, but it's still pretty refined and stylish. It fits the overall atmosphere perfectly and it underscores the emotional scenes when called for. It's one of those scores that is very hard to critique, apart from the fact that it doesn't really have a unique identity. I wasn't too bothered by it considering the film made up for it in other departments.

The cast is on point too. There were quite a few familiar faces, though most of them I didn't quite know by name yet. The biggest reference in the cast is no doubt Shinobu Terajima, an actress who isn't just great at her job but has great taste in (picking) films too. Having her there is basically a quality seal of approval. Kyoko Yoshine does very well as the lead character, Kaoru Kobayashi also makes a memorable appearance later on, the rest of the secondary cast does what is expected of them, but leaves less of a mark. No complaints here in other words.

screencap of Arc [Aaku]

The first half of the film is an exploration of the sci-fi elements and their impact on society. Ishikawa dares to indulge in the genre bits, while also setting the stage for a more drama-fueled second part to unfold. It's maybe a bit odd to switch to black-and-white when jumping ahead in a timeline, but on an emotional level it makes sense and even though I still have my reservations, it is executed with a lot of finesse and it does give the film its own signature. The finale certainly delivers, meaning that Ishikwawa's choices were warranted in the end.

Arc is a type of film I've come to dislike in recent years, mostly because the balance between arthouse and genre always felt off to me. Ishikawa gets it right, and that makes all the difference. He offers a stylish and polished blend of drama and sci-fi that has some interesting things to say, looks absolutely stunning, has a lovely score, and has a great cast to boot. The film may be a tad too different from the norm, though I'm guessing it's just bad luck that it didn't do better at generating a buzz so far. If you get the chance to see this, make sure you don't miss it, especially if you like films with a unique take.