Credit: Japan Society
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

Wandering — Lee Sang-il [Japan Cuts ’23 Review]

August 3, 2023

Earlier in 2023, this writer vacationed in Montreal and saw Eckhart Schmidt’s The Fan (1982) at the Cinéma Moderne, going in completely blind and only later learning of its controversy: Desireé Nosbusch, who plays the film’s lead, was then only sixteen when she was forced against her will into compromising naked and sexual situations. It seems reasonable, then, to suspect that The Fan would be the most morally compromised film playing this year, but Lee Sang-il Wandering proved this assumption to be terribly wrong. Unlike The Fan, the problem of Wandering is not confined to the ancillary (though very real) issues of its production, but rather, from the crux of its attempted artistry.

Put bluntly, this is a sick film. The basic conceit speaks for itself: Fumi (Tori Matsuzaka) meets a troubled and sexually abused nine-year-old, Sarasa (Suzu Hirose), and lets her stay with him for months before he is eventually arrested for kidnapping. Fifteen years later, the paths of predator and prey cross again, and the two begin something of a courtship. Crucially, Fumi is a pedophile; even though he doesn’t act on his attractions, he puts himself in dangerously close situations. This fact is certainly a spoiler since the revelation comes quite late in the film, but it’s tough to care when such subject matter is used as a “reveal.” Some reviews have named their relationship “platonic,” but this misunderstands the philosophical etymology behind the term and mistakes it for “non-physical.” A platonic version of their relationship would require Fumi to seek help for Sarasa through legal or other systems — not through his own dishonest volition and certainly not by kidnapping her.

Based on Yu Nagira’s eponymous novel, Lee’s adaptation projects like a romance, even though there is no real consummation of that nature of relationship in the present. The most jarring decision on this front comes from the editing room: the story is not told chronologically, but in two parts — the months they spent together when Sarasa was a child, and their time in the present — and even those parts weave in and out of strict chronological events to conceal information or obscure Fumi’s disturbing background. As such, Wandering is edited such that the memories from the predatory-victim timeline play the structural role of the “good days,” in accordance with the expectations of the romantic genre. There is a shell of something more psychologically interesting and purposefully frightening lost in the juxtaposition.

In the present, Sarasa is an adult and can consent to whatever sort of relationship she would like, including — one supposes — with a former groomer. That doesn’t make it less deranged, nor does it make it a wise decision on her part. At the end of the day, though, the emotional bonds of their adult connection were formed under the auspice of predatory power dynamics. Yuck. This writer doesn’t believe in the general philosophy of film criticism that insists on the role of the critic as telling readers what they should or should not see. It’s more interesting to produce criticism that centers on the art of the film rather than the opinion of a reader. With that caveat aside, just this one time, here’s a clear (non-)recommendation: you are far better off without Wandering.