'Bad Lands' review: Sakura Ando shines in this long and intense crime film

The film takes a long time to reveal itself, annoyingly so. When it does, though, its powerful aura is hard to ignore.
'Bad Lands' review: Sakura Ando shines in this long and intense crime film

Directed by Masato Harada, Bad Lands is an adaptation of Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s 2015 novel, Keiso. This long, complex and often-convoluted Japanese film must be viewed, from a critical standpoint, in two parts. The first, that is the set-up, adds perhaps too many unnecessary details to the mix. The second, clearly more impressive section, makes some deep revelations. At its core, Bad Lands is the story of Neri (Sakura Ando), a woman who makes her money working for a professionally-run scam call racket in Osaka. The middle-aged Takagi (Katsuhisa Namase) is the boss she reports to. There’s a subtle mentor-mentee relationship here, but not the good kind. Neri is calm, collected, scheming and forceful (when the situation demands it) – all the while presenting a deadpan aura.

The only time there’s a mild subservience in her manner is when she’s in contact with Takagi. Takagi, for his part, spouts generalities like “everyone has a role to fulfil” and “we all have someone to be answerable to”, etc. As per his admission, their illegal operations can be linked all the way up to politicians and the Yakuza. Their primary business is defrauding senior citizens via a complex scam-call network. Neri, who is also referred to as a “third-base coach”, picks up a “catcher” (yes, lots of Baseball terminology to contend with) once the initial call goes out from an undisclosed location to the person being duped.

The said person is requested to withdraw their savings from the bank and move to another destination. Neri and her catcher (dressed very professionally for the con) get attached to the aforementioned individual at the bank, and proceed to tail them. When they realise the police is watching, they make a quick exit.

Masato Harada takes his own sweet time to build the story. For instance, these first set of scenes described take almost half an hour to unfold. The sheer level of detail is quite unnecessary, in my opinion. At 143 minutes, we begin getting to the crux of the narrative only at the halfway stage. While the acting, especially Sakura Ando’s mysterious and intense portrayal, is of a certain high standard throughout, the first part loses your interest.

There’s enough evidence to suggest a highly complicated relationship between Neri and Takagi at the very beginning, but the former’s backstory doesn’t start taking shape until the second half. This technique of laying down every little detail works better in the longer format. In a film, a set-up that doesn’t give much away, leading to powerful or illuminating discoveries down the road, is much appreciated.

But during that build-up, it is key not to lose the audience. The initial portion of the film is fixated on cramming one too many plot points into the story. Her half-brother Jo (Ryôsuke Yamada), who keeps getting brought up in conversation by Takagi, makes a belated entrance at the 35-minute mark.

The themes of childhood abuse, violence (sexual or otherwise), complex power dynamics between parents and children, and neglect, take their time to emerge, but when they do, the film comes into its own. Neri’s outward self-assuredness is pitted against her inner battle for closure and control. She rarely shows affection, not even to her unhinged and impulsive half-brother. She exhibits kindness only to an old, former Yakuza member called Mandala (Ryudo Uzaki)…someone she’s known since childhood. Letting anyone in isn’t an option.

Even before her past is explored in any sort of detail, we are able to see glimpses of her trauma. It takes a special actor to shoulder the burden of a difficult role as this. Hats off to the splendid Sakura Ando for giving us a character so hard to read yet relatable in the most human of ways. You can’t possibly measure the immensity of her loss; the fact that she has come this far makes her instinct for survival exceedingly strong.

Had the writing from the first half been tighter, it would have left more room to focus on Neri and Goya (a billionaire investor from Tokyo), and that terribly traumatic time in her life. Goya’s misogyny and mind games are seen intermittently with other women under his charge (playing in the present) even as he obsessively investigates Neri’s current whereabouts. The audience never gets to see how she got involved with him in the first place.

The lilting classical music makes itself known from time to time, but even in those solitary seconds, the pain and darkness associated with the lead character’s journey is felt deeply. The film takes a long time to reveal itself, annoyingly so. When it does, though, its powerful aura is hard to ignore.

Film: Bad Lands

Director: Masato Harada

Cast: Sakura Ando, Ryôsuke Yamada, Katsuhisa Namase, Ryudo Uzaki, Mitsuo Yoshihara, Yasushi Fuchikami, Kanon Nawata,

Streamer: Netflix

Rating: 3/5

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