Welcome to the world of West North West, where Kei (Hanae Kan) – all cheekbones and alabaster skin – and her Winkleman-haired model girlfriend Ai (Yuka Yamauchi) are about to take their first big step in life: moving in together. One evening, at a café, Kei meets Naima (Sahel Rosa) an Iranian student studying Japanese art, firing the starting pistol on themes of emotional turmoil, racism and jealousy as well as, of course, our old friend homophobia.
West North West – the title refers to the Qibla, the direction in which Muslims face when praying – is most definitely one for filing under A for art house – with a simple plot drawn out by long lingering silences, long lingering shots and long lingering stares. Yes, there is a hell of a lot of lingering here and a pretty generous dose of longing too, as the beautiful but troubled Ai struggles to come to terms with Kei’s friendship – or is it more than mere friendship? – with Naima.
What could have been a fairly standard coming-to-terms-with-yourself narrative is elevated by performances of such beauty, sensitivity and poignancy from the three lead actors that my initial fears about a two hour running time being rather too long were soon dispelled. In fact, the running time let the film breathe, not only giving the actors the space to explore the emotional depth of their characters, but also allowing director Takuro Nakamura and cinematographer Yasutaka Sekine to focus as much on creating a piece of visual art as they do on telling a story. No frame is wasted, the muted colour palette reflecting the film’s downbeat mood, with the camera seeming to suck the emotion from the actors’ faces, leaving the audience with the slightly discombobulating sense that we’re intruding on the most private and personal of moments. At one point we join the tormented Ai on a photo shoot, dressed up and made up to the nines, doing little more than looking straight down the lens but managing to paint a picture of such pain and melancholy that it’s hard to believe that this is stage actor Yuka Yamauchi’s first foray away from the boards and on to the silver screen.
There were a couple of minor frustrations: the “will-they, won’t they” storyline was so drawn out in parts that, at one point, I wanted to shout “JUST BLOODY GET ON WITH IT” at the screen and, similarly, while Sahel Rosa does a pitch-perfect job in portraying Naima’s innate shyness and reticence, there were times when I wanted to climb inside the screen, grab her by the shoulders and instruct her in no uncertain words to get her act together.
But these are minor complaints: West North West is meticulously crafted, visually arresting and skilfully acted – highly recommended.
Watch the trailer HERE.
West North West is available to buy or rent from Peccadillo on Demand.