5 Million Dollar Life : ‘NYAFF’ Review – The Cost Of Living To Die
“Do you know how much a life costs from birth to death?” That’s the seemingly dispassionate question that serves as the launch point for Moon Sung-ho’s delicately rendered coming-of-age drama, 5 Million Dollar Life. From a script by Naomi Hiruta, this is a tale that uses statistics and economic anxiety to explore what human existence is worth beyond what’s printed on the idiomatic bottom line.
Mirai Takatsuki (Ayumu Mochizuki) is a seemingly average teenager, but his life isn’t his own. As a child, he was saved from a congenital, life-threatening heart condition thanks to the overwhelming kindness of his local community, who raised and donated five million dollars for his surgery. Subject to yearly media coverage on his birthday and beholden to the countless strangers who intervened to make him well, Mirai becomes suicidal, and this tendency toward self-destruction gets a firm push when he receives a string of mysterious text messages urging him to pay back the money he was handed so readily as a child. Determined, Mirai goes on an unpredictable journey to raise the five million by any means possible so that he can pay back his life’s debt before ending it all.
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5 Million Dollar Life is preoccupied with the concept of self-worth on both macro and micro levels. In its opening narration, Mirai informs the viewer that the average Japanese citizen brings in 2.03 million dollars to subsist throughout their 2.01 million dollar lifetime, or as another character bluntly puts it “you earn enough to live, then you die.” Mirai, it would seem, has internalized this fact, and having been given an overabundance of wealth from an early age, views himself as “an empty person without value,” undeserving of the generosity shown to him. In his desire to die free of his societal debt, we see a funhouse reflection of the sort defeatism a capitalist, excellence-oriented and wealth-driven society can breed in the soul of its people. This, combined with the hot-button issue of teenage suicide (the phenomenon reached a thirty-year-high in Japan just last year) gives 5 Million Dollar Life an edge of pointed social critique.
But, Sung-Ho and Hiruta aren’t out to lecture and seem eager to inspire hope through humane drama emphasizing daily life in all its small miracles. Mochizuki plays the somber Mirai with an air of wide-eyed innocence that points to his lack of understanding of the struggles of the average person, likely due to the privilege of being wealthy early on in life. It’s only when he runs away, starts roving (in a manner reminiscent of so many wealth conscious Dickensian heroes), and takes on various jobs–as a construction worker, an on-demand bedmate, and a con artist– that he learns to connect with people in a real way. When his journey concludes in an unexpectedly circuitous and satisfying fashion, he learns why good attracts good, and a life, no matter how great or small, humble or extraordinary, cannot be assessed on monetary terms alone.
In lesser hands, this contrived, occasionally soapy drama could have easily turned to syrup, but Mochizuki is an endlessly likable lead with strong instincts, and Moon Sung-ho’s keeps the film firmly rooted in the quotidian with an emphasis on handheld camera work and desaturated visuals. If there’s one respect in which 5 Million Dollar Life trips up, it’s that Hiruta’s script is almost too pat and full of happenstance. But if you’re a viewer who can buy into the brand of feel-goodery the film is selling, it’s a small nitpick for a piece of cinema as infectiously heartwarming as this.
An occasionally grim, though shamelessly optimistic tale that uses socioeconomic status and the notion of privilege to assess the inherent value in living, 5 Million Dollar Life is a smart and humble drama from first-time feature director Moon Sung-ho. With a stirring central performance by Ayumu Mochizuki and a pleasantly circular plot that–though somewhat contrived–plays out like a gooey-eyed modern fable for our greedy and detached age, 5 Million Dollar Life is easy to recommend for fans of humanistic, feel-good cinema.