Through most of the film “The Harimaya Bridge,” protagonist Daniel Holder wears a sullen, stone-faced stare, communicating profound distaste for his surroundings. He simmers with hostility while tromping around Japan, and understandably so — this is the land where first his father and then his son perished.
Daniel (played by veteran actor Ben Guillory) has journeyed from San Francisco to Kochi Prefecture on an emotionally-charged mission. He intends to collect an assortment of paintings produced by his late son Mickey (Victor Grant), a talented artist who had been teaching English to high school students. Mickey’s decision to have taken a job in the country of his grandfather’s grisly World War II demise had pushed an already faltering relationship with his father into a divisive falling out. Any hope for reconciliation vanished after Mickey died in a traffic accident, and the paintings linger as his haunting, bittersweet legacy.
Upon arriving in Kochi, Daniel is promptly met by a trio of board of education staffers who worked with his son. They take him out for a meal and set him up with temporary lodging, but their polite overtures are for the most part met with chilling silence. Eventually, Daniel reveals his objective and is told his son gifted the paintings to various locals. In the face of his brusque demand that the pieces be tracked down and turned over, staffer Yuiko Hara (Misa Shimizu) reluctantly agrees to help Daniel.
The ensuing search proves revelatory, as Daniel gradually and with much resistance learns about Mickey’s deeply gratifying experience in rural Japan. With Yuiko as his guide, he uncovers surprising details about his estranged son’s life that radically change his own.
A quiet and poetic effort, “The Harimaya Bridge” deftly portrays how family bonds can be both fragile and enduring. It also offers a nuanced rendering of the cultural and racial tensions that complicate international encounters, while also celebrating the rich rewards such encounters can yield. Packaged in a thoughtful script with skillful cinematography and abundant talent (Guillory is rejoined by his “The Color Purple” castmate Danny Glover, while the Japanese roles are filled with several renown actors from that country), this film feels immensely satisfying.
Unfortunately, it is not likely to reach the widespread audience it deserves — at least on this side of the Pacific. In Japan last year, a wide release of “The Harimaya Bridge” opened to rave reviews, according to writer and director Aaron Woolfolk, speaking after a recent screening to a sparse but appreciative crowd in the Berkeley Oaks Theater. It can’t be a good sign that in his self-proclaimed “old stomping grounds,” the Oakland native and UC Berkeley alum drew only a couple dozen viewers, even though both he and Guillory had publicized the film earlier in the week with an appearance on the popular KQED radio show “Forum.”
It would be nice to see excitement build in the U.S. for Woolfolk’s fine accomplishment. Not only does “The Harimaya Bridge” deliver quality entertainment, it also showcases fully realized African American and Japanese characters — whose images have historically been shortchanged or abused by mainstream Hollywood. Putting both underrepresented groups at center stage, in fact, means this film carries a commercial disadvantage into the box office. Hopefully this little gem can attain popularity despite those odds.
“The Harimaya Bridge” is currently playing at the Berkeley Oaks Theater at 1875 Solano Ave. in Berkeley and the Presidio Theatre at 2340 Chesnut St. in San Francisco. Call (510) 526-1836 for Berkeley showtimes and (415) 776-2388 for San Francisco showtimes. More information can be found online at www.theharimayabridge.com.