A funeral or memorial service may attract an interesting crowd, since it’s no longer possible for friends or family to pay direct respect to the dead by showing up and being seen. Instead, it may be about a genuine bond to the departed, the meaning that will be assigned to their presence by surviving loved ones, or to ensure that a farewell is well-attended. Some ceremonies are much smaller than others, and it’s far easier in such situations for those present to establish a new relationship based on their connections to the deceased, or however it is that they represent that now-ended dynamic.
Not Beer opens with Samejima (Yuki Tamaki) and Oshikiri (Satoru Soma) drinking and celebrating the near-achievement of the purchase of a valuable heirloom from the elderly Harue (Sanae Kaneko), who is far too trusting. Pleased that they will be able to make a profit thanks to her innocent kindness and generosity, they return to get the item only to find that she has died. They are the only ones at the wake aside from her granddaughter Saki (Miru Nagase) and the executor of the will (Keitoku Ito), and they soon learn that Harue’s will stipulates that her property will be inherited by whoever remains there by eight o’clock that night. Samejima and Oshikiri have a chance at a big score, but they have to pull one last big con to convince the other two that they’re the rightful heirs to what she had.
This is the kind of film that, made in America, might include a sprawling cast and a lavish setup, but the simplicity of this premise and its execution is fascinating. The deceptive duo is hardly subtle, and rather than leave when they realize they’ve stumbled into an unexpected and potentially precarious situation, they opt to remain without carefully coordinating their story. Saki is reserved and patient, though it’s unclear just how close she and her grandmother actually were. And the lawyer who has the will also has a complicated relationship with Harue, one that makes him determined to stay until the end of the night to ensure that her wishes are honored in death.
The feature film debut of director Hirotaka Nakagawa is an involving meditation on the nature of truth and the roles people play in order to suit the circumstances in which they find themselves. In just seventy-two short minutes, Not Beer delves deep into the backstories of all four of their characters, slowly unraveling how it is that they came to find themselves in the small room where one woman’s life is being honored. It cleverly uses time and space to weave a narrative that includes a number of surprising twists, no small feat for a film that runs just over one hour.
Not Beer boasts five strong performances, all of which work in concert with one another given the very small nature of the cast. Tamaki is energetic and quick to action as Samejima, while Soma is more impulsive and unconcerned with letting Oshikiri’s mouth wait for his brain to allow time to process the consequences of what he’s about to say. Nagase allows Saki to gradually come out of her shell, revealing a complexity to her that isn’t always apparent, and Ito is quite emotive as someone whose job is meant to show little trait of his own personality. Kaneko leaves a lingering imprint through the film with an opening scene performance and repeated appearances in flashbacks at various points, adding more intrigue and heart to a film that’s hard to forget.
Not Beer is screening virtually as part of the CJFCX selections at the Chicago Japan Film Collective.