Ryan Chapman at Literary Hub:
About halfway through Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour film someone asks Yūsuke Kafuku, an actor and theater director, why he didn’t cast himself as the titular character in his production of Uncle Vanya. “Chekhov is terrifying,” he replies. “When you say his lines, it drags out the real you.”
Kafuku, played with unyielding stoicism by Hidetoshi Nishijima, has good reason to hide his real self. He’s still grieving the loss of his young daughter, and his interlocutor in this scene is Kōji Takatsuki, a volatile young actor who had an affair with Kafuku’s wife Oto shortly before her death. Takatsuki doesn’t realize that Kafuku knows about the infidelity. What’s more, Kafuku has cast him as Vanya—which the young hotshot is plainly unsuited for—in a multilingual stage production in Hiroshima. Is the cuckold tormenting his dead wife’s lover? Using the play to interrogate something darker about his marriage?
If this sounds like melodrama, Hamaguchi has declared his love of the genre. But this isn’t Douglas Sirk or Pedro Almodóvar. The plot machinations are subdued, stretched out—an acoustic cover of a pop earworm. For Hamaguchi, tone supersedes plot, and an actor’s face always says more than a line of dialogue.