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Heroism Exacts A Daunting Price In 'Wife Of A Spy' And 'Azor'

Yu Aoi plays the title character in <em>Wife of a Spy.</em>
Kino Lorber
Yu Aoi plays the title character in Wife of a Spy.

When we're young, it's easy to imagine ourselves as always being on the right side of history. We like to think that, if we were trapped in cruel or barbaric societies, we would be the brave ones stepping in to stop injustice.

Yet as we grow older, we realize that heroism can exact a daunting price. The cost of such courage casts a looming shadow in two elegant new movies — one set in Japan on the cusp of World War II, the other during the Argentine dictatorship of the 1980s. To very different ends, each film puts its hero in both physical and moral danger, and then shows us how they respond.

Wife of a Spy is a Hitchcockian thriller by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a top Japanese filmmaker whose work has never gotten the attention that it deserves in the U.S. His heroine is Satoko — superbly played by Yu Aoi — the innocent, big-hearted wife of Yusaku Fukuhara, a prosperous import-export merchant and amateur filmmaker in the city of Kobe.

In a 1940 Japan bursting with nationalistic fervor, the Fukuharas tempt fate by pointedly living in a Western-style house, wearing Western clothes, and sipping Western whiskey. Things get even stickier when Satoko's husband returns from Japanese-occupied Manchuria with a beautiful young woman and evidence of military atrocities.

Faced with this, Satoko doesn't know how to react. She and her husband launch into a marital dance of trust, suspicion and betrayal. Is Yusaku abandoning Satoko for a new woman? Will he sell out his country, and their shared life, by revealing the army's abuses? Will Satoko help him do so, or will she save herself by turning her husband in to the righteous military policeman who has fancied her since childhood? The answer will involve deceit, torture, murder, hidden manuscripts and midnight escapes.

Wife of a Spy takes time getting going, but it is immaculately turned, from its superb acting and exquisite cinematography to its finely-tooled plotting. And it does something bold for a Japanese film: It dwells on war crimes in Manchuria that the country has never properly owned up to.

This is just what you would expect from Kurosawa. Ever since his 1997 breakthrough film Cure — one of the greatest horror films I've seen — he has confronted viewers with stories about ordinary lives that get invaded by darkness, be it madness or supernatural forces. Here, Satoko's comfortable life is plunged into the nightmare of history, and she wonders whether she will ever wake up.

Fabrizio Rongione (right) plays a Swiss banker working in Buenos Aries during the Argentine dictatorship of the 1980s.
/ Mubi
Fabrizio Rongione (right) plays a Swiss banker working in Buenos Aries during the Argentine dictatorship of the 1980s.

The tension runs equally high in Azor, the coolly gripping debut feature by Swiss director Andreas Fontana, which unfolds like a version of Heart of Darkness set not along the Congo River but inside the sleek hotels and giant estates of the rich and powerful.

When we first meet Yvan, a punctilious Swiss banker played by Fabrizio Rongione, he's arriving in Buenos Aires to sort out the firm's business after his brilliant but dodgy partner suddenly vanishes. Right away, everything feels off. Soldiers hassle students on the streets, there's talk of people disappearing and bigshots insist on the need to restore "order."

It's Yvan's job to reassure the bank's big clients that he won't just protect their wealth but increase it. Yet every encounter inspires unease in him — and us. All the rich and powerful people he meets — the old-school landowner; the greedy priest; the rude, cynical lawyer — have unreadable faces hardened by their complicity with a ruthless regime that also scares them.

This poses a problem for Yvan, an anxious sort who's nostalgic for some imaginary past when banking was a gentlemanly profession and you didn't have to handle the dirty money of people who sanction torturers. Now, he's scared: scared of losing his clients to bankers who don't mind dealing with dictators, scared that refusing to play along may get him disappeared, even scared of the contempt of his steely wife, Ines, who tells him, "Fear makes you mediocre."

Although it's hard to think of a story about a banker being a real white knuckler, Fontana turns Azor into just that. He does a brilliant job of making us feel the quiet menace of a dictatorship; every clinking ice cube feels sinister. The mystery lies in how Yvan will respond to the pressure.

I wouldn't dream of telling you what he does, but I will say that he digs deep beneath his blandly correct exterior and finds something inside himself that he didn't know was there. Rather like Wife of a Spy, Azor suggests that, one way or another, moral courage can be a mixed blessing.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.