Fans of Japanese cinema will know the name of Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Not only did he impress with his monumental exploration of relational unhappiness in Happy Hour (2015), but he also pleased audiences with his purified tale of subjective realization in Asako I & II (2018).
Yuzo Terada (Nao Okabe) pixelates porn for a living. One day, he is contacted by Satsuki Kurita (Hyunri) who wants to interview him about the murder of her older sister, Mitsuki (Anne Ogawa) for a documentary she is making. Even though he lies about not really knowing her, he agrees to meet and to help her with the documentary.
Hamaguchi’s short movie – and this is not a true complaint – does not have that much thematical depth. Hamaguchi has, in other words, opted for thematic simplicity. One can easily describe the theme in one sentence: Heaven is Still Far Away turns around the remainders of grief and how to deal with them. In more concrete terms, Hamaguchi’s narrative depicts Satsuki’s search for a way that could be therapeutic for her hitherto unexpressed feelings of anger, feelings problematizing her search for closure.
The reason why Hamaguchi opted for thematic simplicity is not that difficult to guess. It is because his focus lies somewhere different. Hamaguchi is, in our viewer, not focused on working through this theme, but on using this theme as a narrative device to explore relations and interactions. It is therefore not surprising that Heaven is Still Far Away features such beautifully structured and naturally unfolding conversations. But we do not only need to applaud Hamaguchi for that. The naturalness of the conversations is also function of the performances of the cast. Without these performances the dynamic between Yuzo and Mitsuki and Yuzo and Satsuki would never been so enjoyable.
Composing one’s narrative with a concatenation of shots always runs the risk of being boring, but Hamaguchi, by fully using the compositional potential inherent to the static shot, succeeds in keeping his narrative visually exciting. Heaven is still far away boasts strong shot-compositions, visually pleasing shots that, in many cases, also have a narrative function. The interesting compositional play with Mitsuki ‘s presence does not fail to engender questions in the spectator concerning who she is, who Yuzo is as well as what the nature of their relation.
Heaven is still far away is an enjoyable narrative, offering a pleasing cinematographical composition and truly beautiful and naturally conversations, but it would be wrong to see it as anything other than an exercise in style.