“I thought being normal was pathetic but being a woman is worse, right?”
Life: Untitled is Kana Yamada’s directorial debut as the film is adapted from her original screenplay. It’s a more expansive, darker, slice of life drama that focuses on a brothel of young women. While the film focuses largely on protagonist Kanou (Sairi Ito) it provides a deep, intimate dive into the lives of young, female sex workers and the violence of men.
It begins with showing us Kanou half-dressed, just having had run from a potential client on her first day as a sex worker. From the start, her cynicism and wry expression captures the audience, and lets us know that this is a film by, and for, women. Her autonomy is threatened by this man who chases her into the street, attempting to still have sex with her despite her refusal of the money and the sexual act. But, her voice as a character is so strong, and Sairi Ito plays her so well, that the tone is set for a film that puts women at the center.
We later follow her back to brothel, now working in a managerial role rather than as one of the sex workers. But the brothel space feels more similar to a sitcom setting — boldly colorful, cubbies in the walls and a refrigerator for refreshments, and the women cackling loudly as they tease and bicker with one another like sisters. You would not know this was a brothel if not for the men constantly entering the space and passing off chauffeur and management duties for the women they employ.
This is what Yamada does best—building a world in which the dynamics between each character is resolutely established and in which there is a constant reminder of the looming dangers of patriarchy. But, on the other hand, the film feels largely claustrophobic (whether intended or not) as it mainly restrains these women and their narratives to the one office of the brothel that they work out of. While this could be representative of their financial plight and the restrictions they face also as women being hurt by men, it limits the realities of the varied sex workers the film features.
Each character has their vastly different storyline—one falling in love with one of the company’s male chauffeurs, to the pensive, experienced matriarch of the group, and another, using sex as a vice to avoid her emotions. Despite this, there is little space that allows movement into the lives of these well-acted characters. This also greatly affects the pacing of the film. Although it runs for 97 minutes, it could have easily been less considering the duration of time spent in the one main setting, or perhaps even more if it had ventured further out into the conditions of the society that got these women into this profession. In the final act of Life: Untitled, it’s overwhelmingly jarring and honest. Yamada doesn’t hold back in her depiction of the harshness and persistent violence that comes with being a woman, especially when we are expected to succumb to male desire and authority.