Their Distance (Shiranai, Futari): Written and directed by Rikiya Imaizumi. Starring: REN, Fumiko Aoyagi, Hanae Kan, Minhyun, JR. Running Time: 109 minutes.
One of the problems I tend to have with rom-coms is that the characters never come across as more than just figures on a flat screen- the writing and acting never seems to be realistic enough that I can actually buy any of the relationship drama it depicts as being things that happen to real people. Their Distance, thankfully, is a great counterexample of how to do this sort of film well- it’s enjoyably cute, and appropriately gooey-happy in the resolution of its conflicts, but makes sure its character always come across as genuine human beings.
Leon is a Korean-Japanese working in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall shoe shop, and he’s apparently more than happy to keep things that way. He’s also a bit clueless, as he doesn’t seem to realize just how hard his coworker Kokaze is crushing on him. His detachment from daily life and other people seems to be a new thing- details are vague at first, but we learn he was involved in an accident that paralyzed someone, and has been carrying around the guilt ever since.
He’s finally shaken from his existential reverie when he walks to his usual park bench for lunch, and finds a strange girl (also apparently Korean) sleeping on it. She wakes and stumbles away, clearly hungover, but he is smitten with her (and, as we soon learn, she with him). He doesn’t know how he will find her again, until another Korean guy comes into the store asking to have a pair of heels repaired. Lo and behold, it’s the same heels the mysterious girl was wearing.
This is the point where we jump into the other circle of characters, a group of close friends consisting of Park Bench Girl, the friend who dropped her shoes off, and her longtime boyfriend (also Korean). Her boyfriend shocked her just the night before with the news that he’s fallen in love with his Japanese teacher, a young woman who, would you believe it, is the longtime girlfriend of the man injured in the accident Leon was involved in some years ago. She’s angry, hurt, and dismissive at first, but soon begins to sympathize with her boyfriend when she realizes she, too, has fallen head over heels for someone she barely knows. And from there we are off to the romantic races, as the web of possible relationship outcomes multiplies over the course of the second act.
As twisted up as some of the potential relationship threads get, what really makes the movie stand out is its excellent use of a clever time skip- we see things from Leon’s perspective for about a week, seeing how he heads out each night to the address left with the shoes, and how he is followed with equal diligence by Kokaze. At first, though, it gets more fragmented as the days go by, and at a seemingly random point, he suddenly stops going to the house at night, and simply heads home like he used to. This seems a bit strange at first, but its time well-taken for setup; it’s immensely satisfying when we finally jump back in time to the beginning, and slowly have all the gaps in the story filled in piecemeal. It’s a small cinematic trick, but done remarkably well.
The key for this movie, though, is how sweetly genuine the actors are. There are two major “breakup” scenes, mostly done with long takes and few cuts, and they feel powerfully real. I know these people. I’ve had these conversations. And for a people-driven story, that is essential. The growth everyone goes through as a result is small but noticeable, and even if much of the status quo is preserved by the end, it’s at least embraced with greater warmth, certainty, and self-confidence that before. And that is indeed worth a great deal.