One of the joys of the Japanese Film Festival every year for me is discovering the unexpected gem. Film festivals are of course great for those films that you’ve heard about and been dying to see that will likely never make it to your local cinema, but I always make a point of picking a few random films as well — films that I’ve heard nothing about; often films that I don’t even bother to read the synopsis for. Without fail, one of these randomly chosen films turns out to be my favourite of the festival.
All-Round Appraiser Q: Eyes of the Mona Lisa doesn’t exactly have the snappiest of titles, nor the most riveting of synopses, but I am here to tell you that this film is one of the festival surprises. It’s well acted, well scripted, well shot, well-paced and all-round well entertaining, and believe me, that’s not something I can say about just any movie.
Riko Rinda (Haruka Ayase, Jam Films S, Real) is an art appraiser with a seemingly remarkable gift. Her Sherlock-ian deductive powers successfully foil a robbery and so impress the gallery owner Asahina (Hiroaki Murakami) that he asks her to go to Paris to take the appraiser’s exam for the upcoming visit of the world famous Mona Lisa to Japan. Equally fascinated by her abilities, journalist Yuto Ogasawara (Tori Matsuzaka, Gatchaman) accompanies her with the intention of writing an article about her. When they arrive, Riko is subjected to a series of seemingly impossible tests and a period of rigorous training in order to qualify sufficiently for the Louvre to trust her with the security of the artwork while in another country.
The majority of the narrative tension in this film comes from Riko’s association with fellow appraiser and rival Misa Ryusenji (Eriko Hatsune, Norwegian Wood, Gatchaman) and the fact that Misa’s rivalry is far from stereotypical. The two women are coded as, if not friends, then at the very least highly professional people that share an understanding of each other that borders on pathos. This then effectively brings the events that unfold into constant question — is Misa really trying to sabotage Riko’s success, or is she merely exhibiting natural levels of concern for her own? Is the secret in the Mona Lisa’s eye real or is there something else going on? In movies, these things aren’t usually all that ambiguous, but All Round Appraiser does an outstanding job of holding back on the reveals until the crucial moments.
It also does an excellent job on playing on its motif — that most famous of Renaissance paintings, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — and to be honest I think it takes some serious confidence to feature a work like that in what amounts to a heist thriller, considering how carefully you’d have to control the suspension of disbelief against the fact that it is basically the most valuable museum owned painting in the world and something in the vicinity of six million people a year travel to see it. That it’s featured in everything from Dan Brown novels to Umbrella Revolution political street art probably doesn’t make that job any easier, but the intense and constant repetition of the image in a number of both literal and subliminal ways elevates this film to almost art itself.
Clearly the kudos for this very solid film go to first the author of the novel it’s based on, Keisuke Matsuoka, and second, to the production team of director Shinsuke Sato (Princess Blade, Library War), scriptwriter Manabu Uda and cinematographer Taro Kawazu. Between them they have produced a highly polished and enjoyable film that at no point missteps. All the characters are convincing, particularly Ayase in the lead role; no one seems superfluous, from the amusing flashback to Riko’s high school teacher to the maybe-love-interest Ogasawara; and the conclusion of the film is possibly the most emotionally and morally satisfying ending you’ll see in a thriller for quite some time to come.
Clearly, if there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that there’s only one Mona, but if more movies were as well made as All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa, it wouldn’t be a crime in the slightest.
All-Round Appraiser Q is screening as part of the 2014 Japanese Film Festival currently on around the country. Check the website for details.