The depiction of sex work in cinema usually does one of a couple things: bears down on the eroticizing, titillating aspects, indulges in moralistic hand-wringing, or employs some combination of the two. To its credit, Life: Untitled, Kana Yamada’s debut feature, adapted from her own stage play, manages to avoid both of those stylistic paths by focusing much more on character examinations and their psychological states as they navigate their feelings about the sort of work they’ve chosen. Yamada also balances out this specificity by encompassing more universal themes: she vividly, and often painfully, makes study of a toxic work environment and the resultant toll, an affliction by no means limited solely to that of the world’s proverbial oldest profession. The setting is mostly a small apartment that serves as the operating base of an escort service, where customers call in for their sex deliveries and most of what the audience sees is filtered through the perspective of Kano (Sairi Ito), an employee of the agency who doesn’t perform sex work, but is instead a staff worker, taking customer calls and doing other administrative tasks.
Life: Untitled’s arresting opening shows Kano’s unsuccessful attempt at escort work, grossed out by her very first customer, fleeing into the street wearing only a bra on top, and addressing to the camera her feelings of self-loathing: “If you ask me, my life ain’t worth shit.” The film’s remaining characters comprise five other women working as escorts, as well as the male employees, including a cruel boss and one of the service’s drivers, both of whom are sleeping with the escort workers. Most of the scenes take place in the apartment, filmed statically in a manner that makes this piece’s theatrical origins all too apparent. Worse, Yamada’s go-to strategy for increasing dramatic tension is to turn up the volume on the actors’ line deliveries, making much of the film a grating, cacophonous experience, an aesthetic miscalculation and bid toward histrionics that unfortunately drowns out whatever points Yamada is attempting to make about the experience of sex work and how its place within broader society.
Published as part of Japan Cuts 2020 – Dispatch 1.