Reviews Short Narrative

Hirofumi’s Suitcase (2018) – 4.5 stars

Director: Natasja J.M. Pattipeilohy

Writer: Raoul Groothuizen

Cast: Masataka Miyanaga, Lizelotte van Dijk, Kumi Sekimoto, Bhargavi Konedala

Running time: 8mins

I am making a concerted effort to learn Dutch. That comes as a surprise to people, when they find out I have been in Amsterdam for six years and still speak in broken Duolingo sentences, but it’s true. Reading, writing and listening are all going OK – but (just as it does in my native tongue) speaking tends to gets me into trouble – especially when trying to communicate something of massive emotional importance in a second language – so when I stumbled upon Natasja J.M. Pattipeilohy’s short comedy Hirofumi’s Suitcase, at the recent Celebration Film Festival, it spoke to me.

Hirofumi (Masataka Miyanaga) is a bundle of nerves sitting before his Dutch tutor – but not for the reasons many of us struggling with the language’s twisting, guttural consonants might expect. The lesson has turned to an important topic, some might say the most important topic: love. For him, the stakes are a little higher than simply giving a wrong answer in front of his classmates; as the lovesick doodles in his notepad make clear, he’s sweet on his teacher.

The stage is set for some excruciating comedic tension, which Raoul Groothuizen’s script duly delivers. Having laid out the basic template for talking about liefde, tutor Marieke (Lizelotte van Dijk) asks the class to try and form their own sentences on the topic. When he is unexpectedly called upon for his answer, the lovelorn Hirofumi cannot summon the courage or the words to say what he really feels. After a brief but awkward silence, he can only take on the tragic role of Echo calling to Narcissus, haplessly recycling the phrase she has given as an example: “Ik hou van zingen.”

At this point, it becomes clear that Pattipeilohy’s film is walking something of a tightrope, and one which more than a few films have toppled off in my years of viewing. When tackling a seemingly straightforward story like this in short form, there is a very real risk that a filmmaker leans too heavily on easy comedic beats, to maximise the amount of laughter they draw from an audience. But when that happens, the film and audience usually end up laughing at the protagonist, in what can be a rather superficial – and ultimately mean – watch.

It is to Pattipeilohy’s credit – as well as her understated leading man – that this does not come to pass. As with the scene I just described, the film draws its humour from its sense of empathy – nudging us to think of our own experiences, fumbling over sentiments in the heat of the moment. Commendably, Hirofumi’s Suitcase never descends into making an ass of its lead character for the sake of a cheap gag – while keeping enough natural tension in play that when unexpected or unusual elements creep in, they are genuinely funny.

Pattipeilohy noted after the screening of the film in Amsterdam that when she found it difficult to find a Japanese man to play the lead role, someone glibly suggested she should just find a Chinese actor instead. Fortunately, she brushed aside this extraordinarily ignorant sentiment, and in Masataka Miyanaga found an actor who is perfect for the role. In moments where his character is aware of how he is expected to behave, the person who drew romantic cartoons in his notes is gone: he is rigid and formal, received and unblinking. But when he thinks he is flying under the radar, he lets himself breathe; he leans forward, absorbing every word and action Marieke puts out to the class, while his eyes seem to smile at her. It’s an excellent, understated performance – which the direction of Pattipeilohy and the cinematography of Artyom Zakharenko make the most of, picking it out to help build context clues for us as Groothuizen’s script races ahead. This is still a short film, after all.

All this comes to a head in the film’s final scene, when Hirofumi becomes aware that this may be the last time he sees Marieke. And how better to lay it all on the line than in song? Calling back to the earlier moment where he can only repeat the thing his tutor loves, Hirofumi shakily makes his way through a ballad of his own composition.

Often in rom-coms, there is a moment like this, where a lead character will perform some grand gesture to win someone’s heart. And more often than not, that moment is utterly divorced from real-world sentiment, because if it weren’t then it would probably come across as psychotic. Here, the performance remains very much rooted in the realism of the rest of the film – making some of its earlier moments pointedly unnerving. When the lyrics suddenly take an unwittingly silly direction, laughs come out of relief as much as anything else – but also out of a happiness that, however clumsily, Hirofumi has managed to come out of his shell, however things go after this. Better to have loved and lost, etc.

As we are in a world where such a gesture is also seen as a little weird, rather than just flatly accepted by everyone, it also means we don’t know if it has been successful, leaving us on the edge of our seats. Until the very final shot, it is unclear just how the song has been received. Without wanting to explicitly spoil how things unfold, I am very happy with the ending the filmmakers chose – and for the opportunity to hear the song performed again over the credits. It’s all the sweeter as a duet.

Natasja J.M. Pattipeilohy and Raoul Groothuizen have built a charming, disarmingly sweet world of characters, that still manages to feel grounded and real – drawing a subtle and affectionate brand of comedy from that contrast. If you should find yourself near a venue that happens to be screening Hirofumi’s Suitcase in the future – and in April Indy Film Library will be putting it in one – seek it out.

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