About an hour into Yujiro Harumoto’s knotty and suspenseful morality tale “A Balance,” Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a documentary director, argues with an abortion doctor (Ryo Ikeda) that “What’s moral isn’t always what’s best.” It’s a platitude that has already been tested for Yuko, whose life has become suddenly very complicated. But that test is only beginning.
“This is all topsy-turvy,” the doctor replies. He doesn’t know the half of it.
For the next 90 minutes of this slow-build ethical puzzle, Harumoto relentlessly changes the terms each time Yuko thinks she has determined “what’s best.” By the film’s unsettling denouement, viewers are likely to share her disorientation, in ways that are mostly good (see: challenging, nuanced), even as the plot, with its many conveniences, sometimes strains credulity.
When we meet Yuko, she is hustling to complete a documentary about alleged sexual impropriety at a Tokyo school. As her investigation expands, the ethics grow thornier, not least because of corporate pressure and misogyny.
Still, she’s a player. Her willingness to stretch certain standards in service of “The Truth” hints at troubles to come. After a parallel event involving her schoolteacher father (Ken Mitsuishi) causes Yuko’s world to cave, she seeks protection in the tools that give her critical distance as a filmmaker — her camera, her insistent questions. It was a nice thought, anyway.
Takiuchi’s Yuko, in turns motherly and mercenary, is bewitchingly enigmatic: What drives her? Why does she still live with her father? Mercifully, we receive little back story; it’s enough that she is an ambitious woman, choked by ruthless double standards surrounding sex and autonomy. As the stakes rise, moral clarity turns out to be a luxury not everyone can afford.
Not rated. In Japanese, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 33 minutes. Watch on Film Movement+.