This fascinating film takes place in both Tokyo and New York, set within the city’s Japanese diaspora. Talented director Naghmeh Shirkhan, an Iranian emigre to the US, chose to depict the lives of Iranian women in exile in his first film, The Neighbor (2010). Along similar lines, Maki situates the Japanese experience in a foreign culture and shows how people band together due to a need for a sense of belonging. It is executive produced by Iranian-American auteur Amer Naderi (who has made a few films set in Japan) and is about 90% in Japanese. As a base, it situates the Japanese experience in a foreign culture and shows how people band together due to a need for a sense of belonging.

Maki (Naomi Sundberg) works at Japanese hostess club in Manhattan which caters to rich Japanese businessmen. There she’s known as Eva and is in a secret relationship with the bartender Tommy (Julian Cihi), who himself is in a one-sided sexual liaison with the club’s mendacious mama-san Mika (Mieko Harada). Immediately we understand that the secretive nature of Maki’s connection to Tommy causes her much distress, but she feels trapped by the situation and is unwilling to end it. Interestingly, Maki is portrayed as fully Japanese though she appears Caucasian and we can assume she is a mixed race person who grew up entirely in Japan. The plot starts to twist when Maki realizes she is pregnant. Initially she hides it but when that is no longer possible the boss Mika steps in and suggests a plan of action. The young woman can go to Mika’s friend’s secluded country mansion in upstate New York to be cared for and give birth, all she’ll have to do is give up the baby.

Though the story is fairly simple, the dark nature of the mama-san’s plan shades the film with intensity. Is what appears to be an unfortunate pregnancy actually a plot to trap the hostess by Mika and Tommy? Why do they need a baby? And what is the story with ex-hostess Yumiko (Yurika Ohno), who seems beside herself with rage at Tommy?

Naomi Sundberg does a wonderful job as Maki, a stunning beauty who simultaneously seems lost and vulnerable, yet strong. Julian Cihi is also superb as the conniving yet conflicted barman who needs to do mama-san’s dirty work. Unbridled power, manipulation and evil intent are explored in this international but very Japanese film. As with many underworld stories where a vulnerable character is at the mercy of a powerful and ruthless boss, we feel almost queasy watching Maki try to work her way out of a malicious situation. Startling and original, Maki is an excellent addition to international feature films on Japan.

Maki: 90 minutes; in theatres starting November 17th.