‘Love Life’ Review: Encounters in Grief

The Japanese writer-director Koji Fukada made his international mark with “Harmonium” (2017). Like that film, “Love Life,” his latest feature, concerns a family shaken up both by an interloper’s arrival and by a sudden tragedy, this time in the reverse order.

Taeko (Fumino Kimura) is raising a 6-year-old son, an Othello board game prodigy named Keita (Tetta Shimada), with her husband, Jiro (Kento Nagayama). The arrangement wasn’t Jiro’s original plan: He had been preparing to marry a colleague, but he cheated on her with Taeko and ended up marrying Taeko instead. Taeko was already a mother to Keita, whose father abandoned them. Now Jiro’s parents, especially his dad, scorn Taeko and Keita as not theirs.

Then — in a development that occurs around 20 minutes in, necessitating a spoiler warning — Keita dies while sustaining a concussion in a bathtub accident, after wandering off during a party. (Fukada, who elsewhere favors a placid, unobtrusive visual style, plays the drowning for suspense with an exceptionally cruel slow zoom.)

The death lures back Keita’s absent father, Park (Atom Sunada), a South Korean man who is also deaf, and who, crashing the funeral, immediately hits Taeko before slapping himself. The recriminations, and efforts to downplay recriminations, begin. Taeko can’t forgive Park for leaving, but she also believes he needs her help. Jiro feels guilty for his relative lack of guilt.

It’s more a grief triangle than a love triangle, and a late revelation alters its symmetry, erasing hard-won sympathy for one character. Part of Fukada’s rationale may be that straightforward catharsis would be too easy. But his drama is facile in other ways, particularly in its use of child endangerment as a device.

Love Life
Not rated. In Japanese, Korean and Korean sign language, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. In theaters.

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