“Five Minutes to Tomorrow” – 2014 Busan Film Review

The issues of time and identity surface in multiple ways, both in front of and behind the camera, in “Five Minutes to Tomorrow,” the latest feature by Isao Yukisada (“Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World”).  The Japanese director decided to set his story in China – with a few shots in Mauritius – in a Mandarin-language film.  Loosely adapted from a couple of Takayoshi Honda novels by the same name, the main cast consists of a Chinese actress (Cecilia Liu Shishi (刘诗诗)), a Taiwanese actor (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan (张孝全)) and a Japanese actor (Haruma Miura (三浦春馬)).  Liu, in fact, plays adult twin sisters who are introduced as children in a flashback sequence to start the film.  They decide to swap their red and blue dresses following an incident when one of them smashes a window; not surprisingly, the case of mistaken identity and subsequent punishment sets the tone for the twins’ lifelong relationship.

The viewer is then transported to the present, which sees a young man named Ryo (Miura) living a rather solitary existence as a watch and clock repairman.  Aside from some interactions with his boss, the introverted Ryo is sometimes forced to retreat further into his shell due to a language barrier as a Japanese living in Shanghai.  It is not known how or why he ended up there, and his reluctance to interact with peers is reflected in his choice of activities, whether riding his bike, swimming in an indoor pool or handling intricate watch parts at his desk.

Enter RuoLan (Liu), one of the swimmers in the same recreational pool.  Sensing an upper hand in the social skill category, she approaches Ryo and drags him on a puzzling quest to find a gift for someone.  When he suggests a clock from his shop and she agrees, this is also an omen, as the pronunciation for the phrase of giving a clock in Mandarin is similar to that of a funeral.  RuoLan chooses to ignore this fact and presents the clock as a wedding gift to her twin sister RuMei (also Liu), who is engaged to a rich film producer, Tian Lun (Chang).  Ryo eventually learns more about these three but mostly when they volunteer information, his geographical displacement and the aftermath of a previous relationship with an ex-girlfriend contributing to his lack of assertiveness.  It is a personality trait that ultimately costs him when RuoLan rather abruptly announces that she plans to take a trip to Mauritius with RuMei.  Following a boating accident near the island, only one twin returns, throwing Tian Lun’s and Ryo’s realities into confused chaos as they struggle to find out who the sisters really were.

Liu switches between two behavioral extremes as the coquettish RuMei and the more withdrawn RuoLan.  Although the contradiction of two sisters who claim to share everything yet harbor obvious jealousy toward one another is difficult to believe on occasion, it makes more sense following the accident when the lines between those two sides begin to blur – particularly after it is known that RuMei became a famous actress after RuoLan had expressed a mere interest in pursuing the craft.  Chang plays the headstrong Tian Lan in a consistent straightforward manner; his demeanor when squaring off with Ryo in a few scenes amplifies the differences between their respective relationships with the two sisters.  However, it is Miura who shines above the rest of the cast.  He revealed on a Japanese variety show that he started to study Mandarin just three months before the shoot, and his impeccable delivery – save a couple of words, all his lines were in the Chinese dialect – hides the reality of rote memorization.  This likely played to his advantage in portraying a reluctant expat questioning the identity of himself and who he loved, and trapped by the passage of time.

“Five Minutes to Tomorrow” (Japanese: 真夜中の五分前; Chinese: 深夜前的五分钟) made its world premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival.  It will be released theatrically in China on Oct. 23 and Japan on Dec. 27.