Film Review: Intense and Profound, ‘Wife of a Spy’ Captivates with a Story Propelled by Secrets and Lies5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
A Japanese merchant who leaves his wife behind in order to travel to Manchuria, where he witnesses an act of barbarism. His subsequent actions cause misunderstanding, jealousy and legal problems for his wife.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Yū Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Higashide, Hyunri
Runtime: 115 minutes
A gripping story that had my attention from beginning to end, Wife of a Spy is my first foray into Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films that tap into suspense and psychological horror, and definitely not my last. The film playfully blends historical drama, romance, and thriller together, which makes it so fun to watch, especially if your definition of ‘fun’ includes holding your breath at watershed moments and gaping at some of the characters’ choices.
Set in 1940, with Japan having just signed an alliance with Germany and Italy, Wife of a Spy follows a married couple, Satoko (Yū Aoi) and Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi), who runs a company that exports and imports textiles with countries like the United Kingdom and America. When Yusaku returns from a work trip in Manchuria, unbeknownst to Satoko, he brings back with him not only a mysterious woman, but also horrifying secrets of World War II. As Satoko tries to unravel what goes on behind her back, she is thrusted along with Yusaku into a world of murder, torture, and betrayal.
Every characters’ loyalties with the nation and with one another are laid bare and questioned in an atmosphere thick with hidden agendas. One might classify the film as a war film for its setting, but it really isn’t. Gone are the action-packed scenes punctuated by sounds of firearms and warplanes typical in war films. Instead, psychological warfare takes place between characters in the quiet, domestic town of Kobe, Japan. Everyone is closely watching one another. Kurosawa unapologetically drops us into a world simmering with fear and anxiety, where possibilities of betrayal lurk in every corner.
But such paranoia pulsating throughout the film is only possible with Kurosawa’s deft direction and use of techniques reminiscent of Hitchcock, who Kurosawa once cited as one of his filmic influences. Unconventional camera angles and framing make it seem like we, the viewers, are the ones scrutinising the characters’ words and actions. Kurosawa knows exactly when to ramp up the fear and anxiety in a scene with a soundtrack of dissonant string instruments. He also choreographs his characters on set with such finesse, like they are chess pieces on a chessboard.
Somehow, by the end of the film, I’m used to second-guessing every characters’ motivations – who can I trust, who can I not? And if you think you are going to be comforted by the light-hearted scenes in between suspenseful scenes, think again. Prickling beneath the laughter and joy is the ever-pervasive dread that something bad will happen soon.
Despite Kurosawa’s conscientious direction, the film relies on a formulaic and straightforward storyline. But rest assured, plot twists are still coming your way. Even then, the film isn’t really hung up on plot twists, which is the usual go-to narrative device for thrillers. Mood and atmosphere, really, are arguably more important than plot for Kurosawa. He is also more concerned with the psychological and moral stakes in war, how people, in the name of justice, will go to any lengths to achieve their goals.
At the expense of such dynamic storytelling, however, is character complexity. Plot and mood have strong-armed the narrative to the extent where almost every character is devoid of personality, whose singular purpose in the story is geared towards plot development.
The only exceptions are Satoko and Yusaku, who Yū Aoi and Issey Takahashi have performed expressively and energetically; their chemistry with each other on set is undeniably mesmerising as well. Satoko is a bit of an enigma in the film, which is not necessarily a good thing, especially when she makes somewhat incredulous, but not unbelievable choices. She is also characterised a bit too accommodating for my liking, perhaps to accurately reflect the times she lives in. Nevertheless, her determination to stay by her choices is laudable and admirable.
The uneasiness and sadness lingered in me even after I had finished watching Wife of a Spy, which is a testament to Kurosawa’s masterful control in mood and storytelling. But the film is more than just pure entertainment – it certainly made me ponder over how war exposes the ugliness in humans that hides beneath a veneer of love and civility. Ultimately, Kurosawa asks of us not to judge the characters too heavily, since everybody, by default, loses something precious to them after experiencing war.
Wife of a Spy is part of the lineup for this year’s Singapore International Film Festival, with its only two screenings sold out. The film will be released on 11 December exclusively at The Projector.
About the Singapore International Film Festival
The marquee event of Singapore’s film calendar will be returning for its 31st edition from 26 November to 6 December 2020. It will present 70 films by filmmakers from 49 countries through a hybrid format of both cinema and online film screenings, together with a slew of talks and panel discussions. For the latest updates on all things SGIFF, follow the festival on Facebook and Instagram.
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