Key of Life’s premise is very close to Rough Cut’s (Hun Jang, 2008), but effectively mixes comedy and drama, resulting in a striking aesthetic blend. In it, a failed actor usurps a stranger’s life and discovers he has to pretend to be a killer-for hire, while that stranger, suffering from amnesia, is led to believe he’s the actor and begins to explore a more artistic and open life.
The film succeeds in dosing the moments of raw emotions and danger of the killer’s life with the comic relief provided by the actor. Among the principal characters, Teruyuki Kagawa, who plays the serious killer turned amnesiac actor Kondo, delivers the strongest performance of the film, and most of its charm rests on Kagawa’s presence. Some will remember Kagawa’s magnificent performance in the classic Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008) as an unemployed father shamed by his situation. He was also a delightfully slimy villain in Rurouni Kenshin (Keishi Ohtomo, 2012), also at the festival this year. His filmography also includes Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, 2007) and the generational sci-fi trilogy 20th Century Boys (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2008–2009), a very familiar face among festival goers.
Uchida sets up very quickly the film’s interesting premise and philosophy of life, the actor Sakurai being (mostly) responsible for moving it forward at the beginning. By its end, Kondo has taken a more active role in the narrative plot, and that’s where the movie loses some momentum. And yet, the film is an oddity. I’ve rarely seen such a seamless dramedy with so much genuine heart. It reminded me of Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007) and the way it used its premise to explore its distinct characters; this is probably why it loses steam when the plot surges again.
And yet, there’s something really special about Key of Life. Perhaps it’s the whimsical view on existence; or maybe the distinctive blend of genres and Kagawa’s strong performance. The magical mix of these elements elevates the film. Key of Life is one of the best films I’ve seen at the festival and one of my favourite films this year.