“Japanese sucks, sorry”
Some films seem like they will be great in concept, only to let you down in execution. The Buffalo Niagara Film Festival screening of Roses Have Thorns is one such example. An American production, but mostly spoken in Japanese and Korean, Jong W. Lee’s tale of love had the potential of being something very unique and creative. Dealing with four characters in their twenties—Jae Hoon Jeong’s Jay, a Japanese immigrant who has been in the country three years; his girlfriend Rachel, played by Vanessa Scott Lee; Kai Issey’s Brandon, a photographer who begins to have feelings for his model, Rachel; and Nozomi Akioka as Kaoru, another girl caught in the middle, sometimes friend to Jay, sometimes to Rachel, always the girl the drives the couple apart—we see their tumultuous relationship four separate times. This device could have been utilized to great effect by showing the same story through each set of eyes, or to show how events can change if one component is different and how that alteration effects everything that comes after. Instead, we are pretty much given four short films strung together. Besides having the same names, the four lovers are never identical to their counterparts in the vignettes that came before. Without any consistency, what is Lee trying to prove? Rather then a study on love’s fickle ways, we are given a series of different drafts on a common outline; a gimmick seemingly used only to pad the runtime.
The film is shot very nicely, with a minimal use of the camera. Each moment is generally filmed from a static vantage point, lingering and watching as characters come in and out of the frame. I really liked the style, giving the actors some latitude and movement without being continuously followed to stay in the center of the frame. Every quadrant contains scenes with the same setup—location, camera vantage point, and periphery characters—and utilizes it depending on the situation. One such example is of the four at a bar, sitting in a table placed in the top left of the frame. This is the moment in each portion that shows the rose color that began the story thread. I can’t remember if the walls change color as well—I only noticed the red walls during “Red” and can’t recall if they were red throughout, or altered depending on the story’s name—but the rose is our constant bridging it all together, a gentlemen flower salesmen, sells one of the four corresponding to the name, being either “White”, “Yellow”, “Pink”, or “Red” with an epilogue titled “Thorns”, a look at the fallout of the new love connections that ended the old, a short sequence that fits as the ending for any of the four.
I was with the film after “White” had ended. It’s a love quadrangle that attempts to have the gravitas of a Closer or We Don’t Live Here Anymore, never quite living up but intriguing nonetheless. Jay and Kaoru are friends, she being someone he can confess his love troubles with Rachel to. Kaoru likes Jay and wants to be more than just friends, but he is genuinely in love with his girlfriend and wants to make it right. The next day, the four get together at a bar for a good time, ending in the drunken slumber of Jay, after he purchases a white rose for Rachel. Brandon and the girls help take him home, wherein Brandon makes a move on Rachel after Kaoru had left. The two go out for food and we find Kaoru hiding in the hallway, ready to re-enter the room and be with Jay. A very conservative Korean, Jay awakes angry, leaving to find his girl and get her away from the photographer. He is justified in his jealousy as he has ignored the advances of Kaoru thus far, however, Rachel metaphorically slaps him in the face anyways saying she feels he is only with her to get a green card. The next day, both women arrive at Jay’s place, where Kaoru makes her move while Rachel leaves the room, only to find them kissing when she returns. The roles are subverted as the one we expected to cheat, Rachel, is never shown as having more than just a meal with Brandon, but Jay, the one “in love”, is caught with the other woman and admits to having slept with her.
That version of the tale ends and we get the title card for “Yellow”. It begins in Brandon’s studio where we see Rachel getting ready for the shoot and Kaoru setting up the backdrops before leaving. I was excited as it appeared we would now get blanks filled in through the same story told through Rachel’s eyes this time, like the first was through Jay’s. The two have their session and Kaoru leaves early to, in my assumption, go home and eventually meet with Jay as he arrived in the start of “White”. Instead, we are given a completely different story that holds very little similarities to the one before it. One constant to all four is Jay passing out at the bar, (each time with a different person buying a different colored rose), leading to a unique confrontation between Brandon and Rachel in her kitchen. He either goes after her wherein she acquiesces to it or says she just wants to take a walk, or she corners him, all while Jay sleeps in the next room. So, rather than have a connecting narrative, being understood as each layer is revealed, we get four movies in one, each containing its own set of characters, all the same, but very different in tone, personality, and moral compass.
The only thing I could take from Roses Have Thorns is that no matter who was willing to have an affair, no matter who pursued whom at the expense of the others, Jay and Rachel just were not meant to be together. However, I don’t necessarily buy into the cynical view that each time the relationship was ruined, nothing good came about. If “Thorns” is to be believed, just because Jay always ends up with Kaoru and Rachel with Brandon, does not mean they are meant for each other. For all we know, the flower salesman is some devil-like character corrupting the foursome with his colored flowers, subjecting them to heartbreak in the guise of something better, a love worth letting go of their previous one for. But maybe Jay and Rachel truly were meant for each other, maybe the other two were to be the temptation that bonded their love completely, but each was too weak to resist. The rose being the apple of Eden, a thing so irresistible that its beauty only breeds destruction. I think that reasoning gives the film too much credit though. It may just be a series of stories put together because they contain the same four people; and maybe there is nothing deeper than that.
Roses Have Thorns 4/10 | ★ ½
 Kai Issey (Brandon), Nozomi Akioka (Kaoru), Vanessa Scott Lee (Rachel), and Jae Hoon Jeong (Jay)
 Nozomi Akioka (Kaoru)
Photos courtesy of www.cinemasia.org