Your Lovely Smile
t.l. Il tuo amabile sorriso
あなたの微笑み (Anata no Hohoemi)
Japan, 2022, 103’, Japanese
Directed by: Lim Kah Wai
Screenplay: Lim Kah Wai
Photography (color): Furuya Koichi
Editing: Lim Kah Wai
Music: Watanabe Yuji
Producer: Lim Kah Wai
Cast: Watanabe Hirobumi, Shogen, Hirayama Hikaru
Date of First Release in Territory: November 12th, 2022
Since the release of his debut feature And the Mud Ship Sails Away… in 2013, Watanabe Hirobumi has often played a struggling indie director in his own films, as a comic meta commentary on his career. But the real-life Watanabe has also received festival invitations and honors, including a section of his films presented at the 2020 Udine FEFF.
In Lim Kah Wai’s Your Lovely Smile he has his first lead role is a film by someone else, but he is once again acting a version of himself, a director named Watanabe who wears a tee-shirt saying tensai (“genius”), but tries to sell skeptical theater owners on his films like a door-to-door salesman.
Scripted by Lim, a Malaysian-born director long based in Osaka, Your Lovely Smile has the feel of a Watanabe film by proxy, with his distinctive brand of self-mocking humor, but instead of Watanabe’s signature black-and-white minimalism, it is a color comedy-slash-documentary. And it is laugh-out-loud funny, as are all but the most austere of Watanabe’s own films.
As an actor the plus-sized Watanabe has played everything from gangsters to sumo wrestlers, but there is something teddy-bearishly likeable in every character. And that goes double for the hapless “Watanabe” of Lim’s film, who sinks to the depths without ever losing his essential faith in cinema, his own contributions included.
The story starts with Watanabe in his native Otawara, the Tochigi Prefecture city that is the setting for all his films. Hanging out with his pals in a game arcade and wrestling with the script for a new film, Watanabe knows that, despite his self-applied “world-famous director” label and his boasts about an imminent call from Netflix or Amazon, he is getting nowhere fast.
Then he gets an offer from a producer in Okinawa, played by the single-named Shogen, to make a film based on the producer’s hardscrabble criminal past. Soon reduced to cringing subservience by his new boss, a gangster type surrounded by admiring club hostesses and scary underlings, Watanabe fails to produce the expected script, in a sequence that plays like sharp sketch comedy.
Narrowly making his escape, Watanabe goes on the road to ask the real-life owner of the venerable Bluebird Theater in Beppu (in operation since 1949) if she will screen his films. “We have a full line-up,” she answers. Staying in town nonetheless to find inspiration for his script, Watanabe meets a mysterious woman named Yuri (Hirayama Hikaru) who begins to haunt his dreams – and the film, turning up again and again in various guises.
Meanwhile, Watanabe wanders the length and breadth of Japan, pitching his films at other independent theaters, all as real as the Bluebird, and all endangered by the rise of streaming services and other developments that have drawn fans away from physical screenings.
Fortunately, Watanabe finally sees his work on the big screen, while the film delivers a heart-felt shout-out to the dedicated theater owners who make it possible.
Does he also finally find happiness with Yuri (or one of her other incarnations)? Not to say, but Your Lovely Smile makes a strong case for its star as a sui generis comic talent, and independent theaters as a needed force for the survival of non-mainstream Japanese cinema, Watanabe’s and Lim’s included.
Lim Kah Wai
Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Lim Kah Wai made his feature directorial debut with the 2010 suspenser After All These Years. His 2011 Osaka-set thriller New World, bowed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and became the first of a trilogy shot in Japan’s second-largest city, the others being the 2013 Fly Me to Minami and the 2020 Come and Go.
Long based on Osaka, Lim has also made films in the Balkans, including the 2018 No Where, Now Here and the 2019 Somewhen, Somewhere, and in China, the 2016 Love in Late Autumn. His road movie/comedy Your Lovely Smile is his first to screen at Udine FEFF.
2010 – After All These Years
2010 – Magic and Loss
2011 – New World
2013 – Fly Me to Minami
2016 – Love in Late Autumn
2018 – No Where, Now Here
2019 – Somewhen, Somewhere
2020 – Come and Go
2022 – Your Lovely Smile