Photo/IllutrationShinobu Otake and Etsushi Toyokawa in Yasuo Tsuruhashi’s “Black Widow Business” (C) 2016 “Black Widow Business” Film Partners All Rights Reserved.

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“My Love, Don’t Cross That River,” a South Korean documentary that became the country’s most successful independent film, is currently screening in limited release in Japan. It’s a simple but emotionally powerful portrait of a 89-year-old woman and her 98-year-old husband, depicting their isolated but joyous life in the countryside, as well as the last moments of their enduring relationship.

The film presents them as doting partners with the unflagging ardor of young lovebirds, who engage in farm work and mischievous horseplay in spiffy matching outfits. In fact, their mutual affection gets laid on so thick at times that skeptical viewers will begin to picture the invisible hand of the director, nudging them toward an idealized performance.

Even so, not even the discovery that the wife got married when she was 14 (which means her husband was 23 at the time), nor the sight of their poor dogs permanently chained to their little houses, can tarnish their devotion. The husband’s visibly deteriorating health, as well as the travails of their pasts, including the Korean War and the loss of six of their 12 children, generate irresistible sympathy.

It was perhaps inevitable that their story would capture the hearts of South Korean filmgoers, although its record-breaking box office success was phenomenally aberrational, in a market even more dominated by a few large companies and even less accommodating to independent productions than Japan’s.

If only the same was possible here. The chance of an indie film, let alone a documentary, making the leap to the multiplexes and becoming popular enough to top the box office chart is virtually zero. This has as much to do with the rigid structure of distribution and exhibition, and the talent agency-beholden media’s dependence on celebrities, as the narrow tastes and dwindling interest of the general public.

Just like the Japanese population at large, filmgoers are growing older, as any daytime visit to a suburban multiplex or urban mini-theater will make evident. Major movie companies are increasingly cottoning on to the benefits of catering to mature and senior audiences, not only by offering a range of ticket discounts in their cinema chains, but by producing the kind of films this demographic wants to see.

Katsuhide Motoki’s “Samurai Hustle” and Yoji Yamada’s “What a Wonderful Family!” both did so well as to justify forthcoming sequels from studio Shochiku, finding favor with older viewers seeking comfortably broad and old-fashioned entertainment. Such productions are providing a lucrative alternative to the heavy saturation of high school romances starring interchangeable starlets, and other slight youth-skewed fare.

The next big hit with older filmgoers could very well be “Black Widow Business,” a winding web of wry deceit from Toho. Its cynical treatment of matrimony would also make for an extremely antithetical double feature with “My Love, Don’t Cross That River.”

Although it is only the third movie from 76-year-old filmmaker Yasuo Tsuruhashi, after the decidedly more romantic “Tale of Genji: A Thousand Year Enigma” (2011) and “Love Never to End” (2007), he has been far more prolific as a director of drama series and one-offs for television, during his over half a century in the business.

As was the case with another film from a revered TV veteran that opened earlier this year, Kan Ishibashi’s small town drama “A Living Promise,” Tsuruhashi’s extensive experience has enabled him to secure the services of a large and prominent ensemble cast.

Shinobu Otake stars as Sayoko, a deceptively mousy serial monogamist in Osaka who marries rich and lonely old men to bilk them entirely of their possessions, with the help of suave matchmaking agency president Kashiwagi (Etsushi Toyokawa).

It’s not common to see a seasoned actress paired with a younger male lead (Otake is 59 and Toyokawa is 54), with the exception of eternal idol Sayuri Yoshinaga’s films from the last few decades. This is not their first collaboration though, as they both featured in less venal guises in two films by Kaneto Shindo’s “Teacher and Three Children” (2008), a nostalgic school memoir, and “Postcard” (2001), a poignant exploration of wartime guilt and grief.

Otake is no stranger to femme fatale roles, having played more expressly homicidal women in Shindo’s “Owl” (2003) and Yoshimitsu Morita’s “The Black House” (1999), as well as Takashi Ishii’s seedy noir “Original Sin” (1992) in which she alternated between victim and manipulator.

Masatoshi Nagase, who co-starred with Otake in “Original Sin” as her rapist-lover (a sadly familiar trope in sexually-charged, male-dominated Japanese cinema), further enhances the film as Honda, a cool-headed private detective hired by the enraged daughter (Machiko Ono) of one of Sayoko’s late conquests (Masahiko Tsugawa, who also popped up in “Owl”).

Other great actors are used in tiny roles, such as Kimiko Yo as Sayoko’s fellow scammer, Shigeru Izumiya as a safe cracker, and Akira Emoto as a veterinarian with a sideline in treating gunshot wounds.

The most profound impact is made by Tsurube Shofukutei, who also played a private detective hunting marriage grifters in Miwa Nishikawa’s “Dreams for Sale” (2012). Here he receives tantalizingly few scenes as a financially and physically well-endowed real estate magnate who becomes Sayoko’s next target.

The film’s trailer misrepresents it as a fast-moving madcap comedy, when it is actually a rather evenly-paced criminal caper with occasional comedic accents, and a dark streak that surfaces with more frequency as the stakes get higher.

Tsuruhashi, who also penned the screenplay, gets off to an absorbing start with scenes of the Sayoko hooking her obliviously besotted targets at senior matchmaking parties, and revealing her true nature in private with platonic partner Kashiwagi. The story continues to open up in intriguing new directions as new players are introduced to their increasingly complicated game.

Further to Tsuruhashi’s credit, the tone of the acting is largely kept uniform and understatedly cinematic instead of explicitly televisual, apart from the sole anomaly of Sayoko’s mad dog son played by Shunsuke Kazama, who takes his cues here from the Tatsuya Fujiwara playbook of one-note overacting.

The film’s Japanese title “Gosaigyo no Onna” echoes the works of Juzo Itami, such as “Marusa no Onna” (“A Taxing Woman”) and “Minbo no Onna” (“Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion”), but the similarities end with its strong female lead.

Otake is more than a match for Itami’s muse Nobuko Miyamoto, making Sayoko a deliciously magnetic antagonist who elicits grudging admiration rather than sympathy, but the script doesn’t dig very deep toward the roots of her ruthlessness, and sidelines its anti-heroine for stretches of the second half as it juggles the many secondary and tertiary characters with an unsteady grasp.

The reliable Toyokawa’s amusingly reptilian charm is a more than a steadying influence though, as Kashiwagi enters into a battle of wits with Honda, and has significantly less success in dealing with the other women in his life: an ambitious nightclub hostess (Asami Mizukawa) and her impressionable protege (Asuka Hinoi).

As enjoyable as it is to watch Sayoko and Kashiwagi try to plug the ever widening holes in their scheme, the steady pace begins to become a detriment as the building narrative tension calls for greater urgency. It also deserves a better ending than its hasty and messily-edited final scene, with credits and dialogue suddenly overlapping a song sung by Otake and mouthed out of sync by a slow-motion Sayoko, featuring lyrics by Tsuruhashi himself.

Maybe he should have taken a leaf from “Dreams For Sale,” which is by no means one of Nishikawa’s strongest works, but it finds a more even balance between apportioning time to its many characters and delving into its two protagonists’ inner lives.

As it happens, “Black Widow Business” is based on a novel by prolific author Hiroyuki Kurokawa, whose “Hamon” (meaning “expulsion,” the English title is pending) has also been made into a movie directed by Shotaro Kobayashi (“Kaasan Mom’s Life” and “Maestro!”) and starring Kuranosuke Sasaki and Yu Ninomiya, who take over roles played by Kazuki Kitamura and Gaku Hamada in a satellite television adaptation earlier this year.

Also set primarily in Osaka but traveling further afield, this banter-laden road flick follows a scary-faced yakuza and a cowardly construction consultant trying to track down a fraudulent movie producer (Isao Hashizume). I’m currently subtitling it, so hopefully it will be quipping and scuffling its way to a film festival near you in the not-too-distant future.

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Editor’s note: New Zealander Don Brown is a longtime resident of Japan who specializes in creating English subtitles for Japanese films, as well as other cinema-related translation. His column runs on the second and fourth Friday of the month in AJW.