Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/14
World premiere: 7 September, 2012, Toronto International Film Festival

The Land of Hope, as a title, doesn't offer a whole lot of wiggle room: it's either crushingly, cynically ironic, or totally sincere, even to the point of saccharine indefensibility. It is a significant point in writer-director Sono Sion's favor that he manages to combine both of these possibilities in his film (the latest in a well-established and reasonably prolific career, though I have somehow managed to remain entirely ignorant of the man's existence until this movie), which includes scenes of significant nihilism right alongside moments of incredibly tender domestic beauty; and even in its melodrama-ready closing act, the film never goes over the top in its desire to make the viewer feel. Only a pointless one-off moment in the closing scene, a meanspirited twist just for the sake of it, really threatens to tip the movie into the nasty sarcasm that I had sort of assumed would be present throughout.

The film is about the 2011 failure of the Fukushima nuclear reactor and the tsunami that triggered it, though it takes great pains to make itself allegorical: explicitly taking place in a post-Fukushima world, the nuclear facility that threatens to go critical this time is located in the town of Oba, in the fictional prefecture of Nagashima (a foreboding portmanteau of Nagasaki and Hiroshima). In particular, it is about the fortunes of the Ono family, whose dairy farm is located exactly outside of the 20-kilometer radius that has to be evacuated in the wake of the plant's failure; the police cordon runs right between the houses of the Onos and their next-door neighbors.

And thus begins a domestic crisis: the elder Onos, Yasuhiko (Natsuyagi Isao) and Chieko (Ohtani Naoko), are too set in their ways to feel like this most ominous sign of impending disaster is worth running from, while their son Yoichi (Murakami Jun) and his wife Izumi (Kagurazaka Megumi) move to a relatively distant town, preferring to avoid even the possibility of radiation poisoning, because that just makes good sense. Meanwhile, the scion of the neighboring Suzuki family, Mitsuru (Shimizu Yataka), and his girlfriend Yoko (Kajiwara Hikari), sneak back into the contaminated, closed-off region, earnestly desiring that no life-changing disaster should separate them from their beloved hometown.

Too much of the film works too well to even consider marking it as a failure, but The Land of Hope is one seriously erratic movie, betrayed at all points by a lack of even the smallest discipline on any matter. It is by no means a film short on ideas, and some of them are absolutely brilliant: the immediate moments after the plant melts down, with people running panicked and the police attempting to assert control, quickly and unexpectedly cuts to black-and-white, which very slowly clambers back to full saturation as the characters start to get their heads around what has happened; Izumi's paranoia about contamination is depicted a beautifully abstract nightmare vision of flames straight out of a horror movie. Some of them, meanwhile, are half-brilliant and half-overdone, such as, especially, the gorgeous but unbelievable ham-fisted symbolism at the end that resolves the story of Yasuhko and Chieko. And a lot of the film is just clutzy, such as an on-the-nose, oddly filmed vision that Yoichi has of being separated from his parents by wooden stakes.

It's similar in terms of the thematic and story development: by trying to capture everything about post-Fukushima Japan in one place, Sono overreaches something fierce: stories about people who are paranoid about radiation, stories about people who don't care, stories about people who defy anyone to tell them that a fall-out zone is dangerous; the film itself never settles enough to adopt its own perspective, spending too much energy hopping form one storyline to another without finding the connecting tissue that makes them all feel like part of a unified whole (this is an especially bad problem with the Mitsuru/Yoko subplot, which adds nothing at all to the film except for one oddly affecting scene with a pair of children who may or may not be ghosts; the characters could be removed from the film entirely with no other ramification than the bloated 133-minute running time would be reduced to a more manageable, and far more earned length).

The biggest problem of all, though, is one of tone: the film simply can't decide how sentimental it wants to be. There are great scenes on both sides: the clinical, austere depiction of the government bureaucrats storming through and ruining everything for the characters has a horrifying impersonality that works better than melodramatic brow-beating would; while a scene of Chieko dancing, in the throes of dementia (another major issue: there's plenty of conflict to spare as it is, and making one of the main characters slowly lose her mind for reasons unrelated to anything else in the plot feels like piling on), as her husband watches in a mixture of nostalgic joy and deep sorrow for her deterioration, is as sweet and touching as any moment could be. But more imporantly than how great these scenes are, is that they are mostly great in isolation: the film never builds, but only works as a series of discrete moments that are either this thing or that, often very good at it but never in a unified, organic way.

This is not to slight how well the film does these things; nor how well a terrific cast embodies their characters through all the ebb and flow. There's plainly talent and creativity in abundance here. But creativity is one thing, savvy filmmaking is another, and The Land of Hope ends up being too scattershot and unfocused to come across as anything but a really impressive, discordant showreel.