“A life without regrets isn’t that much of a life.” So goes one of the many nuggets of sagely wisdom offered by characters in Omotenashi. It’s a sentiment that could also be readily applied to the film itself. A breezy romantic drama boasting a photogenic cast, equally beautiful settings and poised storytelling, Taiwanese director Jay Chern has hardly put a step wrong in his feature debut. What’s perhaps lacking is the spark that might elevate this carefully calibrated crowd-pleaser beyond being merely the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.
Revolving around a young and cynical entrepreneur’s rediscovery of the value of humility and old-school human relationships in a rundown inn he plans to demolish, Omotenashi — which means “the art of warm hospitality” in Japanese — will mesmerize Asian and international audiences craving a helping of picture-perfect Japanese culture. The film opened in Japan early this month, and now makes its international premiere as one of Hong Kong International Film Festival’s two opening films before unspooling in Taiwan in April.
A hospitable debut.
Co-produced by Japan’s Shochiku Studio and Taiwan’s Epic Entertainment and co-written by the Texas-raised Chern and Mami Sunada (the director of the Hayao Miyazaki documentary The Kingdom of Dream and Madness), Omotenashi centers around Jacky (Wang Po-chieh), a haughty corporate scion assigned to visit a traditional lakeside ryokan his company has bought with a view of renovating and then probably selling. Scarred by his failure as a restaurateur in the U.S., Jacky takes a very harsh view of the rickety establishment, pitting him against Rika (Rena Tanaka), the daughter of the inn’s late owner.
Jacky is also in Japan to try and woo his ex-girlfriend Naoko (Mina Fujii) — a plan that quickly goes awry when she tells him of her upcoming marriage to her current beau. Shocked, Jacky alters his plans and tells Rika; her mother, (Yo Kimiko); and their Taiwanese apprentice (Yang Lieh) about his wish to transform the inn into a wedding-friendly venue — a move he hopes will please Naoko and somehow reconnect them.
Following the well-trod formula of the “rural rom-com,” the snarky urbanite is slowly brought down a peg in unfamiliar terrain. He fumbles as he participates in the hospitality lessons deemed essential to the inn’s rebirth, just as he warms to Rika and her perspective on life.
Adding to this central relationship is a few more generic melodramatic tropes about cross-generational conflicts — all of them unfolding as the viewer is treated to glimpses of traditional Japanese clothing, cooking and the tourist landmarks of Kyoto.
If all this sounds like a checklist of what mass audiences expect of a soothing Japanese drama, it’s because the film is exactly that. Chern and Sunada probably are aware of that, and they even cannily go all self-reflexive in one scene in which a character describes a soft-speaking, elderly innkeeper as someone coming straight out of an Ozu movie. That’s probably the benchmark that Chern, who trained in computer science and worked as a gamer before leaping into filmmaking, has set for himself in his new vocation.
The director certainly shows his deftness as a technical multihyphenate here. He also handles the camerawork and the editing, too, and is probably well at home with the CG work that went into creating the inn at the center of the film. While not exactly a scintillating debut, Omotenashi should set this rookie on his way to bigger things.
Production companies: Shochiku Studio, Epic Entertainment
Cast: Wang Po-chieh, Rena Tanaka, Yo Kimiko, Yang Lieh
Director: Jay Chern
Screenwriter: Jay Chern, Mami Sunada
Producers: Jay Chern, Junichi Kitagawa
Executive producers: Yukie Kito, Edi Koesno, Christopher Yang
Director of photography: Jay Chern
Production designer: Kayuki Nittata
Costume designer: Masa Miyamoto
Music: Trio Ohashi
Editing: Jay Chern
Sales: Shochiku Studio, Epic Entertainment
In Japanese, Mandarin and English