When describing great experiences with art, I can’t help but reach for the word ‘magical.’ There are moments whose power defy logic, songs that can crush or revive the heart in mere minutes, perfumes that help us retrieve vivid memories that have been lost for decades. The cathartic, emotional experiences that are so rare in day-to-day life are shockingly accessible once we find the right piece of art. Most such pieces have one or two great payoffs that can make us feel revitalized – hopeful again for the world, our lives, and the relationships we care most about.
However, most truly revelatory moments in art still take time and investment. Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who most recently garnered attention with the Oscar-winning Drive My Car, creates films that slowly work their way toward subtle yet magnificent climaxes. His films arrive at moments reminiscent of season-long television payoffs; our hearts soar when a long-struggling character finally takes a stand or makes an important change in their life. With Happy Hour, Hamaguchi’s 2015 five-hour film epic, we are granted not one but a near half-dozen moments that feel like personal revelations for both the characters and the viewers.
No small part of the film’s power comes from its gradual transformation from calm to chaos. Happy Hour centers around four thirty-something Japanese women who are, on the whole, quite ordinary people. One is a divorced nurse whose commitment to honesty and professionalism often intimidates the people around her; another is a quiet homemaker in a barely-emotional marriage. The group is rounded out by a smiling but reserved art curator and an upbeat social butterfly who originally brought the group together. At first, these women’s interactions with each other are so subdued and polite that it is hard to distinguish whether their friendships are shallow or if they know so much about each other that most things can remain unsaid. The rest of the film takes its time revealing these characters’ hearts, leading them into situations where they can – or must – confront the dissatisfaction with their lives.
While this all might sound rather depressing (and make no mistake, much of the film is rather bleak), Happy Hour has a message of triumph at its core. When one person dares to take more agency in their life, even in a way that others might misunderstand or even outright reject, it encourages those around them to take agency too. Taking a risky but necessary change in our lives makes taking the same action safer for others.
There are other films that explore this same message, no doubt. What makes Happy Hour different – aside from its gorgeous cinematography and remarkable performances – is its willingness to take its time showing us how people arrive at landmark moments in their lives. Each powerful line of dialogue is preceded by a dozen moments where the character holds onto their words out of fear. When we finally get to hear them spoken, they are both imbued with the power of an opportunity finally seized and granted a surprising nuance that paints each character’s prior actions in a new light.
I, like so many people I talk to, often find myself overwhelmed by a life full of cluttered email inboxes, infinite social media feeds, and a constantly-fluctuating economy. It creates a sort of paralysis where everything is moving too fast to properly address and improve any given aspect of our lives. This is what makes Happy Hour such an essential movie in 2022, and most likely an essential movie for at least the next few decades. This is a film that slows down time to allow personal change to become possible and make sense. The future is uncertain, but the present doesn’t have to be as bad as it is. We can speak up against the people and institutions that hurt us no matter how long we’ve been suffering, even if it reshapes relationships we’re terrified of losing. It is a gift to be given the opportunity to believe once again that change is possible. With Happy Hour, an incredible team of individuals has created a film that gives its audience just that.
Happy Hour is currently streaming for free, with ads, on PlutoTV.
Content warning: attempted non-graphic sexual assault.
Image courtesy of PlutoTV
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