New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 私をくいとめて
“It was easier fighting loneliness alone”
This line comes towards the end of the melancholy tinged romance Hold Me Back and though the story is based on a 2017 novel by Risa Wataya, the complexities the film explores regarding isolation and the introspection that trying to make meaningful connections can inspire feel more relevant and more purposeful to these times than some actual pandemic based movies manage to achieve. Writer-director Akiko Ohku digs deep and finds the universal in the specific.
The film begins with Mitsuko (the monomonikered Nom) carrying on a conversation with an unseen voice that will come to be known as A, and it the handheld camerawork almost makes it seems as if there is a presence watching her; like the conversations she’s having are with God himself. It’s a very literary conceit giving cinematic form and sets the tone for a film which captures the novelistic approach the movie takes from the jump.
It’s not too long before it is revealed that the “A” stands for Answer, and it’s the voice in her head giving her advice on how to live her life. And it seems a neat and perfectly orderly life, until it is interrupted by unmanageable reality.
She and Tada (Kento Hayashi), an employee at her office, have developed the sort of endearingly awkward chemistry of the socially maladroit. A chance encounter outside the office and one of those blurted invites upsets the delicate balance and thrusts them into the realm of the non-hypothetical. And as all us terminally bumbling daters know, an abstract crush becoming a tangible possibility can cause all sorts of mental spirals.
If it was just the romance aspect, there arguably wouldn’t be enough here to justify the 130 minute runtime. But at heart this is a character study, and for the most part the time is judiciously used. While we stay very much inside Mitsuko’s head, we are allowed glimpses of the lives of the characters and the world around her; one of the most amusing of these is the runner involving Mitsuki’s office mate Nozomi (Asami Usada) and her crush on pretentious office pariah Carter (Takuya Wakabayashi). And a sequence at a spa where a failure to act when a female comedian is harassed by obnoxious male fans leads to an internal reckoning both gives Nom a juicy monologue examining her own troubled past and gives Maho Yamada, in the small role of the unnamed comedienne, a measure of depth and dignity not usually afforded to such a minor, most irrelevant character.
Another unexpected pleasure is a side trip to Italy to visit a college friend who has drifted into the realm of acquaintance (Ai Hashimoto as Satsuki). Through Satsuki and her frayed connection to Mitsuko, we are allowed another angle into loneliness and disconnection; even once you’ve found your partner, you are not immune to loneliness, and it’s a theme that Ohku manages to explore in a variety of different configurations, finding new and thoughtful angles with each approach.
But of course at the end of the day, it all comes down to Mitsuko and A, and the fraught, internal struggle when you’re forced to confront the possibility that you might not be enough for yourself. The conflict when Mitsuko begins to understand the impact of allowing someone new into their heart leads to a surreal, sweetly touching conclusion that makes the most of the films occasional forays into fantasy. Though ultimately, it’s less of a conclusion than a new beginning. Because isn’t it always?
For its protagonist, Hold Me Back is less of a story and more of a journey. For the audience, it is perhaps more like a mirror; it seems unlikely not to see yourself in her choices and her circumstances at some point or another. And to come out wondering whether or not the voice in her head sound all that different from your own.