With The Dark Tower in the top spot, last weekend was the summer's worst weekend yet at the box office. This weekend doesn't look like it'll fare much better. The two widest releases are franchise installments that nobody asked for: the tired horror flick Annabelle: Creation, and the animated family film Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature.
Thankfully, Cleveland moviegoers have the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque for respite from this late-summer detritus. The eastside art house venue will screen the unsettling new Japanese drama Harmonium at 8:50 p.m. on Thursday and at 8:10 p.m. on Sunday.
Harmonium is a quiet film that grows increasingly tense and disturbing as back stories and relationships are fleshed out. Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is a gruff man who runs a metal shop out of his garage in a Japanese industrial town. His wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and his daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) are devout Christians who pray before meals and practice the harmonium together after school. The instrument's circus-like sound, and the jaunty, beginner's melodies that Hotaru stumbles through, make for an eerily discordant soundtrack that clashes with the characters' sense of secrecy and dread. In the film's opening scene, Hotaru asks Akie about a breed of spider that eats its mother: Will the baby spiders go to heaven or hell?
Toshio hires an old acquaintance near the beginning of the film, one Mr. Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano). Yasaka has just been released from prison, and the mysteries of his past — and Toshio's connection to them — form the intrigue at the center of the drama.
Immediately, Yasaka begins to disrupt family life. Akie, for instance, finds herself powerfully attracted to him. Yasaka is tall, handsome and well-dressed. He treats her with courtesy and even attends church with her (unlike Toshio, who barely acknowledges her existence and is an atheist to boot.) The early hints of an affair emerge, but Akie manages to pump the brakes in a moment of passion and aggression. The rejection leads to the film's pivotal moment.
Unlike virtually every modern American movie, Harmonium's climax occurs not at the end but at the halfway point. The second half of the film takes place eight years later, and much has changed. Toshio, Akie and Hotaru — with a new dynamic — live every day ravaged by the scars of Yasaka's final deed. When Toshio's new assistant reveals that he has a connection to Yasaka, Toshio and Akie must decide how to deal with the intel, and new information emerges as they do.
Harmonium is a slow, smart film that bursts forth, intermittently, with moments of extreme emotion and imagery. Unlike other East Asian crime sagas, this one is short on blood. It is much more reminiscent of a novel's structure: a reflection on comeuppance, on crime and punishment.
Also screening at the Cinematheque this weekend: the 1960s British Comedy Accident; the Alejandro Jodorowsky head trip Holy Mountain, the film that is perhaps the closest visual approximation of the mind experiencing psychedelic drugs; and Tomorrow, a climate-change documentary from actress-turned-director Melanie Laurent (of Inglourious Basterds fame).