Japanese hostess clubs are a fascinating cultural phenomenon: not quite brothels, they’re bars where groups of men can buy the “hostesses” overpriced drinks. Really, the men are paying for companionship, flirtation, a good listener, and maybe something more. Hostess clubs are a perfect dramatic setting for stories of love mixed with manipulation and deceit; the new film Maki has some bright moments, but it doesn’t do justice to its potential.
Maki’s protagonist, Eva (Naomi Sundberg), has emmigrated from Tokyo to New York, and she works at a stateside hostess club frequented by Japanese salarymen who are in the US on business. She came to America because of a guy, and she’s waiting for, well, we’re not sure exactly. She floats through life, drunk and depressed, propped up by Tommy (Julian Cihi), her secret boyfriend and the bartender at the club. The early scenes of their clandestine relationship are directed with a lovely restraint, and they made me excited for what was to come.
“…works at a stateside hostess club frequented by Japanese salarymen who are in the US on business.”
When Eva becomes pregnant, the owner of the host club (played with scenery-chewing villainy by accomplished Japanese actress Mieko Harada) reveals a scheme to sell the child. This sets off the drama in the second half of Maki, which fizzles out to a lackluster payoff. The emotional power that builds in the early scenes of Eva and Tommy gets lost in time jumps, Harada’s “look at me, I’m evil!” monologues along with an overall lack of clear intentions in the storytelling.
One thing that struck me as strange is that the actress who plays Eva, Naomi Sundberg, seems to be mixed-race judging by her appearance and surname. However, the character’s heritage is never explicitly discussed; we see her Japanese father in a Skype conversation, but her mother (who is in the hospital) remains offscreen. At the start of the film, Eva is unable to speak English or integrate at all into American society; by the end of the film, she speaks several lines of English with an American accent. It’s not that the movie needed to revolve around her background, but given the documented “othering” that happens to mixed-race “hāfu” people in Japan, it’s weird not even to bring it up, and the inconsistencies in Eva’s character are more evident as a result. Maybe the idea is to keep her in an in-between state in the viewer’s mind, but the choice to not drop us a line or two of backstory—her mother is from a non-English speaking European country, or her mother spoke no English around the house—made the situation feel strange and unresolved.
“…like its main characters, it’s plagued by indecision.”
Maki spends a lot of time in this kind of unclear territory. It wants us to infer its characters’ interior states, but it doesn’t give us enough to go on. It follows the art-house conventions of subdued psychological realism, but too often the filmmakers haven’t done their homework to define these characters themselves. Some beautiful shots, solid performances, and effective character moments can’t compensate for drama that’s sketched so thin. It’s possible to point at individual scenes and say what characters want in a specific moment, but if you look at the big picture, with the exception of Tommy, they’re all a blur.
For a film that offers a more thorough take on Japanese host and hostess clubs, watch The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. For a story that examines the issues of surrogate pregnancy and adoption with a lot more nuance, read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, which is getting an HBO adaptation soon. Maki is too threadbare to add to this list; like its main characters, it’s plagued by indecision.
Maki (2018) Written and directed by Naghmeh Shirkhan. Starring Naomi Sundberg, Julian Cihi, Mieko Harada, Yurika Ohno.
5 out of 10 stars