Cuteness and jauntiness can only go so far if there’s no substance backing them up. My Uncle, a Japanese film with a name suggestive of a much loved, much older French film, is that insubstantial film. It starts off lightly, but the longer you wait for something, the more apparent it becomes that there’s nothing there.
Yukio (Riku Ohnishi) has to write an essay about an adult in his life, and so he chooses to write about his shiftless live-in philosophy professor uncle (Ryuhei Matsuda). Yukio’s uncle expends a paradoxically large amount of energy to be as lazy as possible, but when he meets Eri (Yoko Maki) he decides that he has to change his routine ever so slightly and follow her to Hawaii, with Yukio in tow.
The best joke and moment in My Uncle comes in the introduction of the titular character, and the entire film is downhill from there. Normally reliable director Nobuhiro Yamashita (JFF 2015’s La La La At Rock Bottom, JFF 2017’s Over the Fence) has put together a film with no momentum or trajectory. A character like the unnamed uncle is supposed to have something to recommend him despite his copious flaws, but he shows few signs of improvement and little in the way of insouciant charm, and Yukio is a long-suffering (for no real reason; his uncle’s actions have remarkably little bearing on his day-to-day life) narrator.
When My Uncle moves on to on-location shooting it plumbs new depths, with the sort of near-racism that you end up getting when a Japanese film attempts culture shock, and the utility of completely unqualified locals in bit parts. One of the English-speaking actors flubs his line terribly, but they didn’t retake it — it’s just left in the movie as is. This is the kind of laziness that might be slightly forgivable if the location was interesting, but My Uncle renders Hawaii into a deathly dull shade of bronze; Japanese films often act as good travelogues or examinations of unlikely minutiae, but My Uncle doesn’t even capitalise on the use of a coffee farm as a setting.
The chameleonic Matsuda, who looks completely different from one film to the next, has no material to work with; with no room for growth, there’s no need to try. Based on Morio Kita’s novel and adapted by Yasushi Suto, the script contains too few events to justify a 110-minute runtime, and has no real right threatening us with a sequel in a post-credits scene like some sort of Marvel film.
My Uncle is a curiously empty film that tries to coast on a charm that it doesn’t have. It reduces not just the audience to passive viewers but also its protagonists, who ultimately may as well have stayed stretched out on their floor smoking cigarettes they didn’t pay for.
My Uncle is screening in Australia as part of the Japanese Film Festival, which tours the country between October 13 and December 3, 2017.
Directed by: Nobuhiro Yamashita.
Starring: Ryuhei Matsuda, Riku Ohnishi and Yoko Maki.