Michael Arias is a patient man. He fought a very long time for a chance to prove his worth as a director, grabbing it with both hands when it finally came along. And with success, the world took notice. And yet, for his second feature film interest seems rather limited. Completely unjustified in my opinion, as it's easily one of the best films of 2009 (so far).
With only two feature films to his name, Arias' career is already worth a bunch of studies and books. He was the first American ever to direct a film at Studio 4°C and almost beat them at their own game. Tekon Kinkreet is one of the greatest animes to have come along in the last couple of years, displaying a sense of style and energy not often seen beyond the Japanese borders.
Perhaps fans of Tekon are still awaiting Arias' next animation project, but in the meantime, he took some time to direct a live-action film. Again he traveled to Japan to make a film that feels very Japanese. Heaven's Door is wildly different from other outsiders' attempts at capturing Japan, most notably the failing efforts of Gondry (Tokyo!), Carax (Tokyo!), and Coppola (Lost in Translation). Arias' film still differs from the locale cuisine but succeeds in adding something other than a failure of cultural understanding.
Heaven's Door contains definite nods to Kitano's oeuvre, especially Kikujiro, and Fireworks, though the story leans closer to Kazushi Watanabe's 19. Heaven's Door, a rework of a German film, brings together two dying souls. They are terminally ill and decide to enjoy their last breaths together. Somewhat oblivious to the law they start their trip in a stolen car to catch one last glimpse of the sea. When they find out the trunk of the vehicle is loaded with money, they let their inhibitions slip while being chased by the police and the rather shady owner of the car.
Arias already showcased a very keen eye for visual glamor in Tekon and confirms his talent in Heaven's Door. Though more down to earth and a bit more sober, the camera's movements are meticulously planned, as is the use of color. While the film doesn't really contain wild flashes of visual brilliance, the overall effect is mesmerizing and very stylish indeed. Add to that some wicked editing tricks and you have a film that knows how to seduce.
For the soundtrack, Arias turned to Plaid once again. I must admit that their sound works way better in this film than it does on CD. I'm not a big fan of Plaid, but as gentle background music or a soft yet leading score, it works miracles. All of this comes together in the hotel scene around halfway through, creating a rather perfect blend of visuals and sound. Acting is solid too with Tomoya Nagase reminiscing Odagiri's style of acting and Fukuda making sure her part is believable, even within the somewhat strange and unnatural setting.
Though the film features a series of strange side characters and has a rather elaborate subplot centered around a criminal businessman, the film's main focus is the young couple's blossoming friendship. As the film progresses Arias inserts something touching and real, and when at one point the much younger Fukuda takes Nagase in her arms and assures him he need not be afraid, that everything will be alright, set to the dying notes of Plaid's piano, Arias hits the spot with the biggest emotional sledgehammer you can imagine. It's a key scene in the film demonstrating that Heaven's Door is more than a simple feel-good, hip, and funky road flick.
Arias' sense of humor is considerably different from Kitano's, but Heaven's Door could be mistaken for one made by a Kitano apprentice. Arias has a more modern sense of style and direction, giving the film its very own face, but there's just something very Kitano-esque about the couple reaching the beach in the final scene of the film. Arias is nice enough to serve the audience the ending they've been longing for, which in this case is the least cruel way out and totally justified. So for all fans of Tekon and Kitano out there, give this one a chance. Chances are Arias won't disappoint.