Phantom was screened alongside a short film, Tokyo Dreams (Japan 2013) by Nicholas Barker. It’s not difficult to see the logic of the pairing. In Tokyo Dreams the camera captures commuters on Tokyo’s network of local rail services sleeping through the routine of their journeys. I wondered just how many of these sleepers had been asked to sign a release form for their appearance but otherwise the film didn’t do very much for me. Phantom is much more interesting. The title refers to the sense of people all around you in a city like Tokyo who are somehow not ‘solid’ and ‘connected’ to the life of the city. They aren’t ghosts but they haven’t got substance. The extract below includes the discussion of the term in the film.
Phantom is directed by Jonathan Soler and it is basically a one-person job. He is a young (born 1985) French filmmaker who has spent a year and a half in Japan. The idea of the film is an essay about living in the city constructed around a young woman and her boyfriend who spend a night when neither can sleep discussing how they feel about their lives in Tokyo. In fact it’s mostly the woman who reveals her thoughts and the boyfriend who listens and occasionally adds his comments. Soler auditioned actors to read the script he had written and then edited the dialogue before adding the image track. The images comprise short and long sequences in a montage of aspects of city life (trains again, discarded objects in the street, roads, buildings etc.) and some scenes of the couple in her flat or in art galleries, on walkways above the city etc. I got the impression that the views of Tokyo gradually moved from the centre of the city to the outskirts. The crucial point is that although we see the couple on screen, none of the dialogue is in synch with characters we see speaking – everything is in effect voiceover. Music is in an important part of the film. During the montages of Tokyo life, an electronic score underpins the camera’s movement but I think that during the dialogue scenes the music is absent. Soler credits several filmmakers as the possible source of inspiration for Phantom and it was Chris Marker’s San Soleil (with its Japanese sequences) that resonated with me.
I confess that I did find Phantom difficult to follow, although I found what the young woman was saying to be very interesting. Part of the problem was that I found it more difficult than usual to track the image while at the same time reading the subtitles. This was partly because the image was often very dark and blurred and therefore needed more attention, but the subtitles were also quite dense. The blurring of the image is a function of the decision to shoot in available light with the aperture on the Canon 50mm lens permanently set at f1.8 and therefore always giving only a shallow depth of focus. I can imagine that if I didn’t have to read the subtitles, I could have given more attention to the images. I also found the overall aesthetic (the music/silence, the dark screen and disembodied voices) to be quite good at lulling me to sleep. (I should have had the coffee before not after the screening!) This was unfortunate as the script has plenty to say about being young in the city.
The young woman eventually reveals that she is well-educated, including a year spent overseas, but can only get temporary work – often as a menial worker. As well as the stress of not being able to afford her modest flat and enough food to keep her going she feels that she can’t be part of urban life (we watch her eating instant noodles). She describes how she feels that the world around her is floating, coming apart. She talks about having to return to live with her mother – the common issue for young adults across the developed world today. She also refers to more specifically Tokyo issues. At one point she says that some people live in manga cafés and both she and her partner dream about opening a small bar/restaurant – which made me think of the excellent Japanese film Dreams For Sale (Japan 2012). She mentions two novels that she has been reading. One is Horoki, a 1927 novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Hayadhi was known as the major writer of ‘women’s literature’ which for many years was deemed ‘inferior’. Several of her books were adapted by Naruse Mikio for his great melodramas of the 1950s. Also mentioned is Kanikōsen (1929) a short novella about exploited crab-pickers that has also been filmed (twice) and adapted for the stage.
Phantom is an intelligent and original film. I think most of the people who have seen it (and have commented on IMDB) have done so via an internet link. The film is available (with English subs) from Amazon France (Region 2). Its theatrical screenings might perhaps be rare because its length (76 minutes) is best suited to compilation screenings in festivals etc. I suspect that it is actually easier to watch on DVD or on a computer screen. However, I don’t regret seeing on a very big screen. I would recommend the film and I’ll look out for future work by Jonathan Soler.
Extract explaining the meaning of ‘Phantom’: