Young Beijinger Coco is used to certain kind of lifestyle. Though she first comes across like a brat it becomes clear that she is tired of rich idleness and her wealthy boyfriend Jimmy’s constant distraction by work. The almighty dollar seems to be on everyone’s mind in writer director Lim Kah Wai’s film that speaks its mind blatantly about the socioeconomic disparity of the times. Christmas is approaching and Coco wants to have a genuine experience with warmth and excitement on her own terms. She plans a trip to Osaka, Japan and finds herself in anything but a simple escape.
Osaka introduces Coco a class stratum that she has never seen before, including Japanese and Chinese immigrants. Common people struggling to run their businesses, forced to borrow money from the Mafia. While New World is centered on Coco, there are compelling things happening around her and separate from her until the lines converge in a set of seemingly fateful congrunecies. After years of joblessness, Masanobu, a young Japanese man with a College Degree decides to take over his family’s Guest House, open it up to foreign clientele and bring a great swell of success to the business. Like the manager of the bar he frequents, he must borrow money from a loan shark to update the establishment. The loan shark happens to be an old friend of his, who dropped out but has seen great success, albeit nefarious. This is one of the film’s stronger ironies, and one that translates to the west with ease.
Coco’s friend Ivy happens to work at the aforementioned bar and sets up Coco to stay at Masanobu’s Guest House. When it fails to meet her upscale expectations, she sets out to find a better place to stay. Lines converge again between her and Masanobu, and Coco finds herself face to face with the Chinese Mafia in Shinsekai. Eri, the owner of the bar has disappeared. She is in massive amounts of debt and it is up to Masanobu and Coco to solve the problem.
As a story, New World floats. It keeps a relatively even tone throughout, and even the most dramatic arcs of the narrative feel muted. In away I appreciate that. There was a lack of manipulation that allowed things to happen with some passivity….possibly too much passivity. Problems seem too easily surmounted. Incongruity in some of the editing pushes this quality of passivity along and sacrifices a potential emotional impact.
The conversations of New World often steer toward heavy-handed remarks about the dipping Japanese economy and tensions between Japan and China. This “subtext” is given so much weight that it puts New World into an indecisive state. The human story is the more compelling one, and it might have served the Lim Kah Wai to curtail some of the more transparently critical pieces of dialogue in favor of character interaction. Even though there is clear intelligence behind these notes, the human story is fully capable of showing everything that the characters wind up telling.
What carries New World is its sense of place. The images are crisp, saturated, and have great dimension. Nocturnal Osaka, even the rough parts, has an otherworldly beauty. The feeling of being lost is palpable as well. Here is where Lim Kah Wai is most effective and most transportive. My favorite scene, the one that possesses the most character and depth involves four people sitting eating ramen from a food cart and talking.
New World wants to suggest the greatness that can be achieved in pooling assets and energy, and drawing together across borders and languages for simple human interest. Lim Kah Wai’s leanings are global, and the title of his film, which is the name of Masanobu’s hostel, makes it clear that community is becoming a much grander construct than we are aware of that requires active participation. There needs to be points of fluid cultural exchange to lubricate intercultural and socioeconomic friction, and Masanobu creates that opportunity and that place with something as simple as a guest house, as does Lim Kah Wai with this film.
Available on DVD by Tidepoint Pictures.