All stills: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)

Chiwawa is not only an interesting choice for a genre festival to play, it’s an interesting choice of a film to make. An examination of the impression one makes on the lives they touch, Chiwawa plays a bit like a mystery film with no mystery solved. Which is not at all anything negative. In fact, it’s a fascinating descent down a rabbit hole of modern culture. Our lead character Miki (Mugi Kadowaki), a young party girl who models for fun, has a love/hate relationship with Chiwawa (Shiori Yoshida) the new girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Actually, Miki didn’t realize that he was her ex-boyfriend until he showed up with Chiwawa at a bar. Chiwawa is exciting and bold and brash and brings new energy into a group of friends looking to do something exciting that summer. The night she meets them, she steals a bag with six million yen in it, leading to a chase around Tokyo, the bag being tossed from friend to friends to elude the security guards. When Miki and Chiwawa end up the last ones with the bag, they share a moment and you can tell that Miki begrudgingly likes her. That story is told in flashback though. After time has passed and the group has gone their separate ways, Chiwawa turns up dead, murdered and dismembered in the harbor. Whereas Chiwawa has led a rather fascinating life since the night of the bag caper, Miki seems to have settled into something like twenty-something malaise. When she offers to give an interview to a writer looking into who Chiwawa really was, Miki begins to examine her own feelings for the first time, a journey which sends her back through her friend group asking their memories of Chiwawa. The authorities may be searching for who killed Chiwawa but what Miki is searching for is who Chiwawa was. What she soon comes to learn is that everyone in the friend group had a very different portrait of the girl who appeared in their midst one day and disappeared as quickly.

Writer/Director Ken Ninomiya crafts a film with much style but never falling into typical quixotic exploration a film about a dead teen might demand. Miki may miss Chiwawa but the search she is on is almost more about finding herself. It’s quite true that most people never examine the intricacies of a friend group until something particularly traumatic pulls them apart. In this case the friend group disintegrated naturally and it’s the traumatic event that brings it back together, allowing Miki to reopen her impressions of how it functioned. It’s a subtle film with subtle performances and many montages; young people enjoying being young to pop music. It’s as if we’ve been given a window into a secret world. At times Miki herself feels like an outsider in this realm or at least one who watches from the fringes instead of diving in head first like Chiwawa. Because we only ever get someone else’s version of who Chiwawa is, the title character remains elusive through the film. The one person we really get to know is Miki who introduced Chiwawa to modeling rather reluctantly, only to see her become an instant success. She tells herself that she never really took it seriously and it was just a side thing for her but how many things can Chiwawa steal from her? Still, the connection between these two characters is unmistakable as seen on the last night of the six-million-yen-spending-spree weekend when the two girls share a long romantic moment in the pool. If the girls never discussing it is frustrating to the audience, you can only imagine how frustrating it must be to our Central character. The true mystery that Miki wants to solve may not be who murdered Chiwawa or who Chiwawa was but what happened in that moment and why they never got back there. It’s a film that raises a lot of questions and although it tries hard to answer them, it leaves the audience wanting more, just like Miki. It’s an elegantly frustrating film, and I highly recommend it.

CHIWAWA made its North American premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, continuing in Montreal until August 1st.

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