Aside from Lars Von Trier and the suits behind ABC’s long-defunct Life Goes On, very few players in the entertainment industry have given handicapped people the chance to play serious roles. Let’s be honest, midgets get far more movie and TV work than the physically or mentally disabled. That can probably be attributed to a collective fear of appearing exploitative, but director Go Shibata bravely eschews these common fears, as is evidenced by Late Bloomer, his carefully paced character study about a palsied cripple turned serial killer.
Masakiyo Sumida spends most of his hours sequestered to a motorized wheelchair, communicating through an obnoxious electronic speaking device (which sounds strikingly like a Japanese version of the Speak ‘N Spell). He gets along well with the trio of aides that switch-hit to assist him, particularly Take, a good-looking, affable singer in a roaring thrash band who loves spending his nursing shift downing a few beers with Sumida.
Despite the constant presence of friendly helpers, Sumida is addicted to porn and lonely as hell, and when he has a chance to hire a cute little college girl as his newest aide, he jumps all over the chance. After briefly enjoying the fresh dynamic the college girl provides, Sumida grows frustrated as she grows progressively interested in the handsome Take, and a darkness begins to spread inside of him.
Masakiyo Sumida is disabled in real life, and his tightly-wound facial muscles frequently mask the emotions trying to break through his bearded, bespectacled visage. Late Bloomer doesn’t come across as exploitative—Sumida appears to be enjoying himself in more than a few segments—but director Shibata does employ a dubious technique that’s been utilized heavily in recent Steven Seagal films: Just plant him in the middle of a scene and edit around him, no acting required. Still, it somehow works for Late Bloomer.
Starting out as a carefully paced character study, the movie doesn’t hit the horror jackpot until the final 20 minutes, and even then, it’s not the exactly the craziest roller coaster in the amusement park. More art film than gore fest, Go Shibata’s film aims to get into your brain and stay there. And there’s no denying that once it takes root, Late Bloomer is a hard movie to shake.