Written and directed by Takuro Nakamura, Kei works at a cocktail bar, while Ai works as a model. Fearing she’ll be ostracised by society, Kei chooses not to admit her sexual orientation to anyone, and, as a result, she becomes distressed and lonely. One day, Kei gets close to Naima, an Iranian student studying art in Japan. Starring: Hanae Kan, Sahel Rosa and Yuka Yamauchi.
The style of this film is extremely apparent right from the start and totally consistent throughout so unfortunately, if it’s not for you in the first five minutes, you may struggle to make it all the way to the end. It’s unassuming, understated, slow and grounded, it exists in a bubble of quietness and isolation. There may be plenty of other people and busy environments that appear throughout but its so solidly focused on its characters, that their feelings of loneliness, being lost and uncertain permeate everything. It touches upon the feel of slow cinema but has a flexibility to its direction. The palette is quite muted, especially considering the Japanese metropolitan setting which typically would mean taking advantage of the colours and liveliness, instead here it’s used to demonstrate that you don’t need to be in the middle of nowhere to feel alone. It perhaps restricts itself a bit too much, it can feel somewhat unfinished or lacking finesse at times, leaning towards being bland.
Nakamura’s writing style is similarly grounded, it’s emotional but never melodramatic. Boiling it down to its basics, some of the story is quite well-travelled ground, jealousy of a new person in your partner’s life when your relationship feels vulnerable. However, what’s unusual is to have a story with a lesbian relationship where it’s explored in an everyday fashion, rather than a period piece, filled with promiscuity or being used as a manipulative tactic. It’s a nice change of pace but pace is also inherently the problem, it moves extremely slow which is an acquired taste. It’s asking a lot of its viewers’ patience, as while there is an interesting story at play of both coming out, and of arriving in a new country having lived in one which was war torn, it’s not used to the fullest extent. There’s quite a few layers of emotion and experience which were left untouched when its run time was more than sufficient to dive into them.
The element which tries to balance out that slowness is the acting. Hanae Kan, Sahel Rosa and Yuka Yamauchi each have distinct personalities, and different ways of expressing their emotion so it brings a good variety which is otherwise missing. Kan’s Kei is quiet, stoic and coldly confident but clearly gets across the vulnerability she’s hiding beneath. Rosa’s Naima is much more outwardly struggling, trying to find what she wants and where she belongs, and attempting to do so on her own instead of letting people in. The two of them create a solid chemistry, it’s not romantic per se, but there’s an unspoken connection which plays out convincingly. Yamauchi’s Ai is a much more familiar character, her inherent jealousy accentuated by being gay in a society which still struggles or refuses to accept the community.
West North West is an admirable attempt to tell a story of struggle through a lesbian lens, it’s still somewhat a rarity, even in the six years after this film was originally made. However, it’s plagued by restricting itself too much, the pace is overly slow and the palette is relatively bland. Despite some great performances, it ultimately lacks a driving force or definitive energy or style to keep things moving and make a lasting impression.