Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani) is a successful mystery author from Japan who has decided to call it quits on her current book tour. She tells no one and instead simply absconds to San Francisco to hide out and catch her breath, but it’s a handsome stranger named Akira (Kazuki Kitamura) who catches her eye instead. They spend the night together, and he disappears the next day. His abrupt exit combined with the suitcase he left behind triggers her nose for mystery, but as a trio of curious strangers begins circling she realizes too late that this is one mystery with an ending out of her hands.
Running parallel to Aki’s amateur sleuthing is a slightly more official investigation by nearby Sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) that begins when he accidentally hits a man with his car after the Bay area’s infamous fog rolls inland. The victim survives but disappears from the hospital without a word. It’s not long before Aki and the sheriff cross paths as their mysteries merge putting them both on a path towards deadly trouble.
Director/co-writer Dave Boyle has crafted a casually addictive character piece masquerading as a twisty noir, and while it’s occasionally bogged down with an extraneous and uninteresting subplot it remains an engaging tale.
The distracting subplot concerns the sheriff’s daughter Teresa, also a cop, who wants to take lead on an investigation of her own. There’s a hint of her desire to eventually take over for her father as the county’s lead cop, but it’s neither interesting nor well developed. Del Moral fares better when he’s left to his own devices, and part of his appeal is in Serna’s offbeat and atypical appearance. He’s appeared in numerous recognizable films, but this marks a rare leading turn for the charismatic actor whose curiosity and energy belies his age.
The film’s at its best though during the time spent with Aki. She’s not just running from the pressure of stardom – she’s missing something. Even before the mystery lands in her lap there’s something eluding her, something she’s searching for to replace the loneliness and guilt in her heart. Fujitani makes Aki a woman of the world who’s slowly been worn down by an unavoidable (and soon to be revealed) truth, but she balances her visible despondency with an occasionally wry smile and knowing glance.
The mystery fueling the script (co-written with Joel Clark and Michael Lerman) manages to be both simple and a bit convoluted, but it never takes away from the characters. Aki in particular grows into a rich character with real depth even as she sinks deeper into the riddle of the missing men. We come to care about her both in relation to the mystery and regardless of it.
There’s something to be said for the film on a broader scale too – it’s an American movie filled with Japanese characters, and rather than fetishize or stereotype it’s more interested in their individuality and culture. Script and performers go a long way on this front, but it’s undeniably helped in that regard by the locale. San Francisco is a city that embraces its multiple ethnicities, with Asians in particular representing a large and integral part of the society, and the area allows them to be a part of the fabric instead of appearing as outsiders. Boyle also takes great advantage of the Bay area’s geography eschewing typical SF views for a more street-level reality.
Man from Reno isn’t a thriller with adrenalin-filled action beats or Hollywood-like arcs, but it entertains, engages and pulls you into its world all the same.
The Upside: Ayako Fujitani and Pepe Serna; fun, casually twisty noir; smart use of tone; takes good advantage of locale
The Downside: Time spent with sheriff’s daughter is distracting, of no value and makes the film feel overly long