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Film Review: “Wife of a Spy” Wisely Contrasts Spousal and Civil Loyalty for Brutal Results

Written by: Hannah Tran | September 16th, 2021

Film poster: “Wife of a Spy”

Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Wife of a Spy might be a slightly misleading title for what is a heavy, complex political drama. Set in 1940s wartime Japan, the latest film from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (To the Ends of the Earth) deals with the marriage of Yūsaku, a leader in charge of an import-export business, and his wife, Satoko, who is deeply in love with her husband and also stars in low-budget heist films that he produces. Steeped with tension and romance, Wife of a Spy is a layered deconstruction of loyalty and nationalism that is more than happy to challenge the audience’s perceived understanding of the world it presents.

The characters within Wife of a Spy, much like the story, may initially seem recognizable to anyone familiar with the genre. In Yūsaku (Issey Takahashi, Samurai Shifters), we have a stern and mysterious husband. In Satoko (Yû Aoi, From Miyamoto to You), we have a loving but naive wife. However, the characters unravel to surprising lengths as their relationship to themselves, each other, and their country is questioned. In particular, Yū Aoi’s performance as Satoko feels shockingly transformative and emotionally expansive. She garners the viewer’s sympathy with ease, although sometimes her wide range of character can feel a bit too sudden and jarring.

Yû Aoi in WIFE OF A SPY ©Kino Lorber

What is more jarring though is the cinematography, and yet it works better. The cool and muted colors of the 1940s emphasize the brutality that underlies the surface of the country. The fact that it is a historical drama shot on digital feels more and more deliberate as the narrative unfolds. It adds to the thematic ideas of artifice and reality, especially when compared to the projected pieces we see of Yūsaku’s film. And it has thoughtful, striking images to match as it uses a variety of unconventional techniques while remaining consistent in tone and style.

This tone and perspective provide the perfect stage for the film’s complex and unique dilemmas. While there are more superficial themes of jealousy, insecurity, and betrayal, they are taken to extremes with the larger ideas of nationalism and morality. The film questions what role one is supposed to play in regard to their country and those that they love and what should we do when those two things are in conflict. Satoko’s role as an actress is a fascinating element of this question that reflects back on each of the characters to ask which role they play and to what extent they chose it. These characters and their shifting relationships all pay off for a satisfyingly ambiguous ending that smartly ties the points that it needs to together. While it is difficult to tell where the story is heading, the memorable final moments of the film are tragic, unresolved, and realistic enough to allow Wife of a Spy to truly cement its purpose.

l-r: Yû Aoi and Issey Takahashi in WIFE OF A SPY ©Kino Lorber

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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