Dir: Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli. 2014. 94mins

Last Summer

Rarely has high summer been as gelid as it is in first-time Italian director Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli’s pseudo-thriller Last Summer, which premiered in the curious ghetto of the ‘Italian Perspective’ sidebar at the Rome Film Festival.

By the end we’re yearning for something more than a minimalist mother-son bonding exercise, as what started as a promising thriller ends up feeling like a stretched dramatic short.

With Fortissimo selling and Oscar-nominated Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi taking the lead role as a mother who is given a few days on a luxury yacht to say goodbye to her young son after losing a custody battle, one might have expected a bigger festival splashdown for this English - and Japanese-language title.

But although Seragnoli and his technical crew are good at atmospheres – using the sun’s glare, the uneasy motion of the waves and the gilded cage of a luxury yacht to build tension in a way that initially sets up comparisons with Plein Soleil or Knife In The WaterLast Summer is in the end a small family drama, a dinghy of a story hiding in a yacht of a package. It will take a good captain to steer the film to much sustained theatrical action, though further festival play is likely.

The main problem is the script – written by Serragnoli together with Italian graphic artist Igort, with Japanese dialogue overseen by novelist Banana Yashomoto. Reticent to the point where we wonder if it actually knows its own backstory, it adds up to a lot less than its controlled, mannered surface would suggest.

The sleek modern yacht where all the action takes place floats for much of the film a short distance off a scrubby Mediterranean coast – actually Puglia. It’s staffed by a crew of four – seasoned captain Alex (van Wangeningen), first mate Rod (Ball) spiky chief stewardess Eva (Bach) and her junior deputy Rebecca (Griffiths, from True Blood), whose main job soon turns out to be child-minding cute little Ken (Brady) – a curly-haired tyke of, at a guess, five or six – who arrives on the yacht and soon begins ordering the staff about (though in a well-brought-up sort of way).

We know his mother is soon to arrive – the crew have discussed this as an ordeal to get through – and soon enough Naomi (Kikuchi) is stepping on board, her gamine fashion-plate hairdo and impeccable dress sense (curated by Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero, who also has a co-producer credit) contrasting with her dark, wounded manner. Ken – who Naomi also calls Kenzaburo – recoils from her, and the constant, nervous watch Rebecca and the other crew members keep over their young charge suggest they know something pretty bad about what kind of a mother Naomi was to her son. Some scraps of torn fabric Naomi hides in a drawer, an episode of self-harm when she crushes a glass in her hand and regular phone calls from the father of her estranged husband – who has the crew in his pay – provide further fuel for suspicion.

But it’s exactly here that the film doesn’t add up. Talking in sometimes stilted English dialogue, the crew members on this luxury prison boat are too one-sided: cardboard oppositional agents with no depth. When the captain possibly shows some small kindness towards Naomi, we don’t know how to interpret it because we don’t know the reasons for his hostility. What does work – thanks to a quietly emotive performance from Kikuchi and a delightfully unforced, natural one from first-timer Ken Brady as her son – is the gradual thawing of the relationship between mother and son, his transferal of loyalties from his minder to his mother, as she abandons English and begins to talk to him in Japanese – a language the boy clearly understands, though never speaks.

The constant, muffled lapping of the waves on the side of the boat, the deployment of strong colours (a bathing costume, a pennant) against the washed-out background of teak deck, white hull and cobalt sea – these are neat style tricks, and for some of the time they really do serve to rack up the tension. But you can’t maintain suspense forever without at little story development. By the end we’re yearning for something more than a minimalist mother-son bonding exercise, as what started as a promising thriller ends up feeling like a stretched dramatic short.

Production companies: Cinema Undici, Jean Vigo Italia, Essentia, Rai Cinema

International sales: Fortissimo Films, info@fortissimo.nl

Producers: Elda Ferri, Luigi Musini

Screenplay: Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli, Igort, with the help of Banana Yoshimoto

Cinematography: Gianfilippo Corticelli

Editor: Monika Willi

Production designer: Milena Canonero

Music: Asaf Sagiv

Main cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Ken Brady, Yorick van Wageningen, Lucy Griffiths, Laura Sofia Bach, Daniel Ball