Berlinale 2021 review: A Balance (Yujiro Harumoto)

One of the major highlights of the Panorama section at the Berlinale, Yujiro Harumoto’s compelling and multilayered drama A Balance follows a documentary filmmaker entangled in a complex web of abuse and manipulation. The protagonist of the film is Yuko, who works on a television project initially intended to be a “regular piece about bullying,” as one executive puts it, but her documentary grows into a complex investigation as it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the victim from the perpetrator. This is true not only for the film Yuko is directing, but for A Balance as a whole as well – Harumoto’s film is marked by a neutral approach that deliberately makes it challenging for the audience to form fixed opinions about its wide gallery of characters. Nothing can be taken for granted in A Balance, no one is completely guilty or innocent, and everything is mediated in ways that may or may not be truthful. Yuko is constantly forced to question her assumptions about the people around her and faces a conflict that shatters even the most fundamental things she believes in.

The conflict in question arises when a disturbing revelation about Yuko’s father and one of his students makes us see everything that we watched until that point through a different lens. Yuko’s documentary is about a school teacher and a young female student, who both commit suicide after being accused of having an affair. Yuko approaches this story in a balanced way that attempts to uncover the truth. Her goal is to avoid the sensationalist media discourse that surrounded the case, turned the teacher into a monster, and resulted in the suicides of both parties involved. She shows compassion towards the teacher’s mother and sister, trying her best to analyze the shaming these two women have faced in the aftermath of the scandal. However, the values that inform Yuko’s documentary work are tested when another young female student named Mei gets pregnant and claims that the father of her child is none other than Yuko’s father, who teaches in a cram school. These two stories of sexual abuse expose a growing discrepancy between what Yuko believes in and what she chooses to practice in her personal life. On one hand, she works hard to find the truth about a case of sexual abuse and help the accused family. On the other hand, however, she tries to cover up another abuse scandal that can possibly ruin her father by withholding key bits of information, while also helping the victim during her pregnancy.

A Balance is full of twists and turns that complicate this fertile, if slightly contrived, dual set-up. Harumoto’s film resembles the work of acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who specializes in similarly complex morality tales that raise difficult ethical questions. Like Farhadi, Harumoto prefers to deliver crucial information about his characters in a gradual manner and challenge the fundamental assumptions the viewers are likely to have. There are multiple disturbing revelations about the teacher’s sister, Mei, and Yuko’s father, and each twist adds a new layer to this ambitious film that deals with hefty themes like searching for the truth, struggling with one’s own principles, and societal attitudes about abuse.

At 153 minutes, A Balance is a bit stretched and perhaps there is one twist too many, pointing to a certain degree of narrative engineering to pack all the major themes mentioned into a single film. But despite the convoluted storyline and extended runtime, Harumoto manages to keep the film engaging and suspenseful throughout. With its muted color palette, unhurried long takes and lack of musical accompaniment, A Balance may be a challenging, even suffocating film to watch at times. Yet Harumoto’s engrossing and often thought-provoking tale offers plenty of rewards for patient viewers.