Category: Japanese Cinema

One Night (Hitoyo, Japan 2019)

The family re-united at mealtimes

Following Miyamoto, I was surprised to discover that my second Japan Foundation film was also concerned with violent abuse. The two films have some other elements in common as well but in other ways they are quite different. This is a CinemaScope family melodrama from one of Japan’s oldest studios Nikkatsu. The Inamura family at its centre runs a taxi business on the outskirts of the Tokyo region. The narrative opens in 2014 and three teenage children are all terrified of their abusive father. When their mother appears she feeds them rice balls and then tells them she has just driven into their father and killed him, hoping to save her children from more abuse. Almost before they have fully grasped the situation she announces that she is going to turn herself in to the police and that she will go to prison. She promises to return in 15 years, adding that their uncle will take over the business. Fifteen years later she does indeed return and her old employees are pleased to see her back. The three children have mixed responses.

The taxi business

In some ways this film felt familiar. I remembered the melodramas of Nomura Yoshitaro from the 1960s and 1970s which showed at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2014 and I think there are some links in terms of ‘tone’ and feel. Reading the helpful review of the film by Hayley Scanlon, I understand that this type of melodrama might be termed hahamono or ‘mother film’/ ‘film about maternal love’ and that there is an interesting broader discussion of how this categorisation developed in Japanese cinema, seemingly from the 1950s onwards. In this film, mother ‘left’ after telling her children that they were now ‘free’ to live their lives as they wished but not surprisingly perhaps they have each so far ‘failed’ in one way or another. Consequently mother’s return prompts a range of responses. I don’t want to spoil the narrative surprises so I’ll just make more general observations. The melodrama extends beyond the nuclear family group in a number of ways. In particular the office manager imagines herself into a similar situation as the mother and a second subplot involves a new driver the company takes on, a man who eventually reveals that he has a son from his failed marriage and who becomes disturbed after meeting the young man. I’m not sure whether these extra two story strands strengthen the central story or whether they are superfluous. One of the strands adds to the dramatic finale, but I wonder if a tighter script could cut them out and actually produce a stronger and shorter film? On reflection, I think that they are recognisable as melodrama elements that point towards social issues – women as carers and the possible consequences of divorce and separation.

A more expressionist shot of mother, isolated on her return

The new driver meets his son – there is a lot of eating in this film!

I’ve called the film a melodrama because of the high emotional content and because of the family inter-relationships. In terms of style, however, I don’t remember the music particularly and the camerawork has been described by other commentators as ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. Again it didn’t seem noticeably so to me apart from occasional shots such as that of the mother above. But it often seems to be raining heavily and two of the characters have familiar afflictions, Daiki the older son has a stammer and his sister Sonoko has fallen back on excessive drinking. The younger brother Yuji has problems that are more internalised. There are flashbacks to the father’s abuse and these are not conventionally signalled but often occur in what are otherwise routine sequences. This is a way of disrupting the narrative which seemingly represents what is going through a character’s mind. The family house is a jumble of rooms that more or less merge into the taxi company’s offices and another aspect of the film is an almost procedural study of the running of the taxi business. I wasn’t surprised to discover that director Shiraishi Kazuya has made films in various genres, including one labelled a ‘docudrama’. One Night appears to be adapted by Takahashi Izumi from a 2011 play by Kuwabara Yuko and it is noticeable that many of the scenes focus on the taxi company offices and living quarters. That isn’t to say that the narrative does not move outside and I was pleased to see some different kinds of location, including the ferry port at Oarai which offers passage to Hokkaido.

The three children as grown-ups are (from left) Yuji (Satō Takeru), Sonoko (Matsuoka Mayu) and Daiki (Suzuki Ryôhei )

I enjoyed the film on several levels. The performances are very good and I like the ensemble feel of the taxi company. I think UK audiences might recognise Matsuoka Mayu who starred in Shoplifters (2018) as well as Satō Takeru from the Rurôni Kenshin films. The mother is played by Tanaka Yûko. She’s very good and a calm centre in the midst of chaos. There are many plot details that I haven’t covered here and overall I found this to be quite a ‘meaty’ narrative: there is plenty to get your teeth into and a lot of eating. Look out for more Japan Foundation films next week.

Miyamoto (Miyamoto kara Kimi e, Japan 2019)

Miyamoto the salaryman invited to eat with Yasuko

Miyamoto is the first film I managed to book for this year’s Japan Foundation Film tour. The festival is online with free screenings, most of which sold out within an hour or two of becoming available, but I think there are still some films available as repeat screenings. Miyamoto is listed on IMDb as ‘From Miyamoto to You’ and I can see why they have simplified the title. Miyamoto Hiroshi (Ikematsu Sôsuke) is the central character of the film, which has been adapted from a section of a 1990s manga that became a TV series in 2018. Seinen manga like this are aimed at older teenage boys and adult men. I think various cast members in the film are carried over from the TV series. Miyamoto is a stationery salesman, a slender young man and a familiar ‘salaryman’ figure. The film narrative is nonlinear and begins with a meeting between an injured Miyamoto facing his angry boss and explaining how he got into a fight. The narrative will soon move into a long flashback and eventually resolve itself in the present. The beginning of the story is a meeting between Miyamoto and a slightly older woman, Yasuko (Aoi Yu), whom he presumably knows from a sales visit to her office. Yasuko invites him to eat with her in her apartment but the meal is interrupted by Yasuko’s drunken ex-boyfriend. At this point we are wondering if the interruption will lead to the fight which caused Miyamoto’s injuries. I won’t describe all the ins and outs of the plotting, which I did find intriguing. Instead I want to explore different aspects of the film.

The injured Miyamoto takes Yasuko home to meet his parents

Plied with beer by Yasuko’s mother, Miyamoto passes out

I’m not sure how much updating of the original story has taken place since the 1990s. Japan has a history of patriarchal attitudes to work culture and after work drinking. Men would work late and then drink  to excess and abuse women unlucky enough to meet them. Have things changed much in the last twenty to thirty years? Miyamoto is constantly feeling he has to assert his masculinity and the result is usually that he collapses into a stupor after drinking too much or he says and does rash things in a spirit of bravado. The irony is that he is physically not well equipped to do either. This film includes several violent fights and some violent and abusive moves against women. When Miyamoto and Yasuko eventually get together they visit both sets of parents. The film didn’t seem to me to identify the location of the two sets of parents, but I read a review which suggests that in the manga, her parents are in Hokkaido and his in Yokohama. During both visits Miyamoto and Yasuko make an odd couple who manage to be both polite and disruptive in the calm lives of the parents. The trips outside Tokyo also provide an opportunity for indications that there is a form of romance developing and that they might survive as a couple.

The rugby team ‘Sweet Chocolets’

Director Mariko Tetsuya has developed an international reputation as a creator of violent films, often developing out of domestic situations. His 2016 film Desperate Babies is still being debated and a Harvard Film Archive event a year ago was titled ‘Self-Destruction Cinema: The Films of Mariko Tetsuya‘. Anyone who has seen his earlier films would know what to expect from Miyamoto but I was taken aback by some of the violence, including that against Yasuko. Miyamoto himself becomes involved with an amateur rugby team made up of some of his customers. There are some very big guys in the team and Miyamoto is no match for them, but he doesn’t give up. So is this just drunkenness and thuggery? I don’t think so. There is some humour and humanity and though I don’t condone any male violence towards women, Yasuko is not defenceless or passive. I should also note that there are two sexual encounters, one of which is violent but the other is carefully shot to be explicit but also within those boundaries in Japan about not showing genitalia. The music in the film is also important, seemingly ‘punkish’ at some points.

A love scene both ‘tasteful’ and explicit

Ikematsu Sôsuke as Miyamoto won a major Japanese prize, the Kinema Junpo Best Actor Award in 2020. It is certainly a startling performance which I think may be seen ‘extreme’ by audiences in the West in several scenes. I did find some scenes made me uncomfortable but I recognise that they fitted with the character. This film is likely to remain as a niche or cult film in the West but I think it is recognisable as a familiar Japanese melodrama with the traditional characters of a salaryman and his prospective wife, the visits to the parents and the excessive drinking in small bars and as part of family gatherings. Yasuko’s mother seems to regard Miyamoto’s attempts to drink beer fast as ‘heroic’. Take out the violence and the narrative could work in an Ozu melodrama (with bigger parts for the parents). Mariko is an intriguing director and I would watch another of his films. The trailer below (no subtitles) gives away SPOILER plot points but it illustrates the film’s uncompromising style.

To the Ends of the Earth (Tabi No Owari Sekai No Hajimari, Japan-Uzbekistan 2019)

Yoko in Samarkand

I had mixed feelings watching this film. I was confident it would turn out to be well-made, intelligent and probably provocative as a recent film by Japanese auteur Kurosawa Kiyoshi, but I started it without too much prior reading. My first thought was about a Zhang Yimou film, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (China-Hong Kong Japan 2005). In that film, an older Japanese man undertakes a trip into a remote part of China in order to record a performance by a local folk artist on behalf of his son, an ethnologist who is too ill to finish his work. In Kurosawa’s film, a young Japanese woman works as the presenter on a reality TV travel programme and her latest brief is to visit Uzbekistan where her producer-director hopes to find interesting local attractions around which he can construct brief clips of his presenter interacting with an alien culture and its people. She leaves behind her boyfriend, a firefighter.

Yoko releases a goat that she discovered tethered in the city.

My initial sense of trepidation proved to be justified. This is a strange film which seems to be pursuing several different possible narratives and different approaches which didn’t really come together for me. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some interesting sequences as well as some sections which certainly seemed like more familiar Kurosawa territory. We follow a small Japanese crew – a producer-director and a two man camera and sound crew plus the presenter and an Uzbek-Japanese translator. In their quest for interesting material they search for a possibly mythical fish in a large lake and try some authentic Uzbek cooking in a roadside diner. In both cases, the Uzbek translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) sets up the scenes with puzzled local people – a fisherman and a woman cooking in her diner. In both cases the presenter struggles to perform her task, putting on the proverbial ‘brave face’ for the camera, developed into an over-cheery performance. We realise fairly quickly that the presenter, Yoko (Maeda Atsuko) is going to be the central character in whatever narratives emerge. This J-pop star has built up a long list of film and TV credits in the last few years and I found her performance quite remarkable as she appears childlike one moment and sophisticated and elegant the next. But perhaps it would be useful to think about Japan and Uzbekistan first before grappling with what else Kurosawa offers us in this film.

Visiting the market in Tashkent . . .

The most damning review of the film comes from Tony Rayns in Sight & Sound. Bluntly, he sees this as sentimental twaddle but he does make some useful points about Japanese culture and its post-war relationship with overseas travel. This film is a co-production between Uzbekistan and Japan and it celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations between the countries and 70 years since one of Tashkent’s most famous sights, the Navoi Theatre, was decorated by Japanese POWs (captured by Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War). This latter event is worked into the narrative in the closing section. These kinds of commissions are always problematic for auteur filmmakers, who clearly don’t want to make a banal ‘official’ film. Kurosawa’s script here tries to turn the references to the Navoi Theatre into a kind of personal quest/triumph for the presenter Yoko and on that score I think I agree with Rayns that it doesn’t work. I’m no judge of Japanese popular music but I felt that Maeda Atsuko’s voice just isn’t up to the demands Kurosawa places on it (which include performing in a fantasy sequence).

. . . and the Novoi theatre.

Uzbekistan must be one of the least known and least understood countries on Earth as far as much of Western culture is concerned – and indeed, Japanese culture. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film set in Uzbekistan before (though neighbouring Kazakhstan has produced several seen internationally). Kurosawa’s film features mountain landscapes, the capital, Tashkent, and the second largest city, Samarkand, the historic city on the Silk Road. Tashkent in particular seems like a city combining Islamic and Soviet architecture in distinctive ways and the Russian influence in the country, which lasted for perhaps 180 years, seems to match the British presence in India over a similar period. Rayns refers to the ‘primitivism’ of Uzbek culture with those scare quotes underlined to present a critique of Japanese attitudes. This does raise the question of the different elements in the film and ‘how’, or rather ‘if’, they can come together. Is the film primarily a critique of those reality TV shows in which a celebrity presenter travels around ‘exotic’ locations? Or is it a character study about a young woman in a difficult job who feels alone in a foreign country? Yoko is certainly presented as being apart from the four men who make up the rest of the TV group. There is a suggestion that she is the star of the group but she is treated badly and arguably subject to abuse by the insufferable director who seems indifferent to the potentially dangerous situations he pushes her into. On the other hand, she doesn’t really attempt to bond with the other three guys who are generally supportive. The most successful part of the film for me (apart from the glimpses of life in Uzbekistan through the camerawork of Ashizawa Akiko) are those scenes in which we feel Yoko’s sense of being alone in an anonymous hotel or on the streets of a crowded and unfamiliar city. This rang true and I’ve certainly experienced similar feelings. But Yoko’s unguided trips, which turn into three separate ‘adventures’, also offer Kurosawa the opportunity to develop his more usual unsettling atmosphere associated with horror films as Yoko stumbles down darkened streets or runs through a crowded bazaar. It could be argued that these generic touches support the drama of Yoko’s story but in a way they seem to me to undermine the attempted critique of the ‘Japanese abroad’ or the reality TV crew whose ignorance simply makes us angry.

I think I’m out of step with many of the reviews I read which generally praise the film. As I’ve indicated, there are many good things about it, but it doesn’t seem to add up. I think you have to be very careful with this kind of culture clash narrative. Though Japanese tourists in Asia carry the legacy of Imperial aggression in the 1930s/40s (which has still not been worked through enough in some countries), the post 1945 generations are usually accepted as being non-aggressive with no specific agenda. On the other hand they wouldn’t want to be seen as ignorant, insensitive and non-caring. Kurosawa’s characters are in danger of fitting those descriptions, especially the director and to some extent Yoko. On the other hand, Uzbekistan has an authoritarian political system and is one of the worst countries for human rights issues, including slavery in its cottonfields, a very long-running issue. Kurosawa was taking on a very difficult task. I’m not sure what could have improved the film but his approach – discovering things as the shoot went on, might not have been the best way to approach the production.

To a certain extent, I did some research about Uzbekistan, but prior to the shooting, I didn’t go to Uzbekistan and look for the details. If I really wanted to learn about Uzbekistan in detail, I’d have to do it for years. I’d have to spend time living there and learning the language. But that was not my aim for this particular film. My aim was not to make something particular to Uzbekistan, but something that could happen anywhere, to anybody—myself included—somebody who doesn’t know anything about the country that she or he goes into, and struggles mightily at small clashes between cultures. That was my aim for this, which is why I didn’t go do research beforehand on location. (from the interview conducted by Lawrence Garcia for MUBI Notebook, September 2019)

Cure (Japan 1997)

The cross on the wall signifies a murder in ‘Cure’

MUBI recently offered a Kurosawa Kiyoshi mini-season and I managed to catch Cure, Kurosawa’s international breakthrough film, just before it fell off the 30 day rolling programme. It is available on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK from Eureka and possibly on other streaming services. Kurosawa is a major filmmaker who hasn’t been seen much in UK cinemas but he’s a firm favourite with festivals and is very highly regarded in France. In the UK he became known around 2000 with some releases in the ‘Tartan Extreme’ DVD series. I was very impressed by his 2008 prize-winner Tokyo Sonata which did get a very limited run in UK cinemas. Although it does have links to the earlier films, Tokyo Sonata seemed to many critics to be something different. The issue here (or perhaps just in the UK) is that Kurosawa began his career in what were seen as exploitation genres – ‘pink films‘, then V-cinema films (low budget, straight to video) and finally J-horror. Cure appeared in Japan just a few weeks before Nakata Hideo’s Ringu which has often been acknowledged as the film which launched a series of remakes and similar titles in South East Asia and Hollywood. (Ringu was a literary adaptation that had already been adapted for TV.) Cure does share something with Nakata’s film but in other ways it is even more complex and disturbing.

The suspect (Hagiwara Masato) tries to intimidate Takabe while the psychologist Sakuma (Ujiki Tsuyoshi) watches in the background.

In outline, the story appears to be a familiar serial killer format but one in which gruesome murders are committed by dazed killers who don’t know each other and who seem almost unaware of what they have done. Somebody or something has caused seemingly ‘ordinary’ people to kill someone they encounter or someone they know. The detective in charge of the investigation is the lead character who has his own problems in the form of his wife who seems to have a form of amnesia. She is prone to getting lost when she goes shopping and she acts oddly in attempting to keep house. Yakusho Kôji plays the detective ‘Takabe’. He is one of the most successful Japanese actors of his generation and in 1996 had a major international success with Shall We Dansu? He has worked several times with Kurosawa Kiyoshi. In this film he wears a long gaberdine coat and his demeanour switches from complete calm to bouts of rage. He himself is overworked and getting close to a breakdown. Like the the best J-horror films there are also moments of possible hallucination and the progress of the investigation is disturbing in several ways. The narrative does not end when the suspect is caught and interrogated. Instead we move into a dénouement which includes another element similar to that in the Ring series – a scientific experiment dating from the turn of the 20th century which continues to create a ‘disturbance’ nearly a hundred years later.

Takabe finds an ‘Edison phonograph’ in an abandoned laboratory.

I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way – and indeed to do so with any certainty would be very difficult since the events, especially in the closing section, are presented elliptically. Instead I’ll just mention some of formal ideas and possible references. A link to Ringu is the addition of a second investigator. Whereas in Nakata’s film, the principal investigator is a female reporter who is aided by her ex-husband, here the detective is aided by an academic psychologist who is eventually able to track down details of an 1898 criminal investigation and the scientific research that became part of that investigation. The suspect is a young man who is able to compel ordinary people to kill. Why does he do this? Takabe the detective seems drawn ever more deeply into the case and we begin to worry that he might not have the mental strength to pursue it to its conclusion. The narrative is set in the Tokyo area and ranges from the beach to offices, cheap hotels, a police hut, a hospital ward etc. The final sequence almost felt like a Tarkovskian stumble through an abandoned world (I’m still mulling over Stalker) – see the image above.

J-horror was a Japanese genre that achieved significant international distribution. Kurosawa is clearly at one end of a spectrum with a heavy shading of arthouse/auteur sensibility. I do wonder how much the success of the genre is down to the general feeling of malaise in Japan during the long period of economic stagnation during the 1990s. Does this connect to the return of ghost stories? There is a suggestion of a ‘return’ of 19th century fears in Cure and a feeling of desperation and despair about contemporary society. With this film Kurosawa was hailed as a new ‘master of horror’ and I found the film extremely affective in its power to disturb. I must try to watch more.

The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori, Japan-France 2007)

Machiko and Shigeki play hide and seek in the rows of tea bushes

The MUBI streaming offer currently includes three films by Kawase Naomi. The Mourning Forest is the earliest of the three and the other two, Still the Water (2014) and Sweet Bean (2015) were covered on this blog on UK release. The Mourning Forest didn’t make it into UK cinemas but I remember noticing its appearance at various festivals because it has been difficult to see Japanese films directed by women over the last few years and I began to look out for Kawase Naomi films. Eureka/Masters of Cinema brought out a Blu-ray/DVD dual edition of the film in the UK in 2017 – which presumably allowed this MUBI streaming opportunity as the companies seem to link up on distribution.

I think this earlier film, only her third feature after more than ten years of making mostly shorts and documentaries, is more difficult to watch, partly because of its subject matter. In visual terms the film is very beautiful but the focus on a care home which includes someone suffering from a form of dementia might be sensitive for some audiences.

Machiko in the care home’s kitchen

The film is set in the hills and forests of Western Japan in a township, ‘Tawara’, I haven’t been able to find on a map. Nara is listed as the director’s home town and somewhere in Nara prefecture seems a likely location. Machiko (Ono Machiko) is a young woman who has taken a job at a care home outside the town, located in the hills next to a tea plantation amongst the rice paddies. As she begins to learn the daily routines guided by her understanding boss Wakako (Watanabe Makiko) she begins to get interested in one resident in particular, a widower Shigeki (Uda Shigeki, a non-professional actor). Shigeki has a form of dementia which occasionally makes him violent in a childish way. Some reviewers describe him as ‘elderly’ but although he is grey-haired he appears strong and supple in his movements. (He’s certainly a lot fitter than me!)

I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers because this isn’t a plot-driven film and the story-telling style is sometimes opaque so that it took me repeated viewings of some scenes to piece the narrative together. The Press Notes reveal that Kawase drew on her own family experiences and that she chose the precise location because in this area families and neighbours still prepare the dead in traditional ways without funeral directors and bury their relatives and friends without cremation. The film opens with a funeral procession through the fields and a montage of some aspects of preparation for the procession. The film’s title in Japanese means either the place of mourning or the ending of mourning. We get a glimpse of Machiko’s home life which seems to refer to a child who has died. Her husband blamed her for his son’s death.

Machiko and Shigeki play around the home – he is clearly fit and active

The care home appears almost Utopian in the context of care homes in the UK. There are only a handful of residents who are taken for walks in the around the fields and the allotment, picking fruits and vegetables. They have calligraphy classes and one day a teacher comes to discuss philosophy with them – is he a Buddhist monk? There are moments in the film when signs and posters are not translated in the subtitles, which makes these scenes even more mysterious, but we do see that Shigeki’s wife was called Mako and that he sees from Machiko’s calligraphy that her name includes the same characters. The philosopher tells Shigeki that because his wife died 33 years ago she has now become a Buddah and can no longer return to this world. It is Shigeki’s birthday and all he seems to want as a gift is to be with Mako. A few days later Machiko takes Shigeki on a car trip. They head off across the hills but the car fails and they are stranded. When Machiko runs to the nearest house for help, Shigeki doesn’t wait in the car as she requested but heads off in the opposite direction. When she returns, Machiko is forced to look for him. The time they spend in the forest (she does find him) takes up the second half of the film. There is a resolution to the narrative but it is also to some extent ‘open-ended’.

Shigeki in the forest – he knows what he is looking for

I confess that when the car trip began I was worried. Machiko is inexperienced. Shigeki clearly likes her but he has been aggressive as well. But Wakako tells her “There are no set rules”. This isn’t a horror film or a crime thriller, but even so, a forest can be a dangerous and frightening place as well as a place of great beauty and spirituality. We often think of Japan as a crowded and urban society but even on the main island, Honshu, the central spine is mountainous and sparsely populated. I have seen several East Asian films in which forests are much more than just ‘locations’ and I commend the stunning photography by Nakano Hideyo and the music by Shigeno Masamichi which create the textures and moods of the forest. There are two moments of fantasy in the film but otherwise Kawase uses an observational camera and allows us, the audience, to construct the narrative as we see fit given the events observed and the excellent performances of the two central actors.

The Mourning Forest is not an easy watch but it is very rewarding if you stick with it and allow it to work. I’ve seen some dismissive reviews which clearly don’t understand what’s going on but if you are interested in intelligent and beautifully made cinema, I urge you to watch the film.

La vérité (The Truth, France-Japan 2019)

La vérité seems to have received a relatively cool reception by international critics and those few audience members who have managed to see it in the UK and the US where it has only been released online because of Covid-19. A general reaction is that it is witty with great performances but doesn’t have ‘depth’ and is perhaps a disappointment after the international success of Shoplifters (Japan 2018). I don’t agree with this. I did find the film a little difficult to get into but I think that was partly to do with watching it on my TV set on a Summer’s evening rather than in a darkened cinema. Once I was past the first 20 minutes or so I became engrossed and now I want to watch it again. Fortunately it is now on MUBI.

For those who aren’t Kore-eda Hirokazu fans, I should point out that this is an interesting hybrid – a film by the current international arthouse champ from Japan, made in France with two of the most important French actors, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. And, just to make it extra tricky, there are several scenes in English with the presence of Ethan Hawke (who probably speaks reasonable French given his films with Julie Delpy and Kristin Scott-Thomas). This is Kore-eda’s first production outside Japan and he follows two other Asian directors in making a film in Paris. One of Kore-eda’s inspirations, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, made Le voyage de ballon rouge (France-Taiwan 2007) (also with Juliette Binoche) and Iranian Asghar Farhadi made The Past (France-Italy 2013) with Bérénice Bejo. In both cases, the directors introduced characters from their own national cinema contexts into a French setting. Kore-eda is much more subtle in his references to ‘Japaneseness’ I think.

The family out for a meal. Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier join Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve. Behind are Alain Libolt as Fabienne’s manager Luc and Christian Crahay as her partner Jacques

Outline

This film is an interesting mix of family melodrama (Kore-eda’s own strength), comedy and a film about acting and filmmaking (i.e. dealing with ‘truth’). Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a veteran diva of French cinema who has just published an autobiography and when we first meet her she is giving an interview in her Paris home to a journalist. This is interrupted by the arrival of her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a scriptwriter living in New York, with her husband Hank ( Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). It soon becomes apparent that Fabienne’s book is titled, ironically, ‘The Truth’ but is clearly fabricated in many ways, including important omissions of friends, relatives and co-workers. Fabienne is also working on a new film, a science fiction story which forms a mise en abîme – a story within a story which reflects back on the overall narrative of the film. Fabienne plays a woman approaching 80 who bizarrely becomes the aged daughter of a young woman holding back the ageing process by spending most of her time in space. The casting pits Fabienne against a young actor Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel). Will Fabienne bring her own prejudices about acting styles into her playing of the woman in the film? Of course she will.

Commentary

My own first reaction to the film was that Kore-eda was again exploring different genres as he did in the The Third Murder (Japan 2017), a film that did cause consternation among some of his international fans expecting more of the same. It’s always a brave move to try something new, especially with a new crew and working in a second and third language. I’ve had to re-think that a little because in the Press Pack Kore-eda tells us that the origins of the film go way back to a play script he started to write in 2003 about an actor in her dressing room one night as she is coming to the end of her long career. The push to develop this idea then came from Juliette Binoche as far back as 2011. Kore-eda suggests that something about the film may also derive from his feelings about the death of the Kirin Kiki, the veteran actor for whom he felt affection and respect for her acting qualities. He links this last point to his desire to make a film that has a lightness and an ending which he hopes will mean that audiences leave a screening with a “little taste of happiness”. This is also because he wants to express his appreciation of the work by Binoche and Deneuve. Ultimately this is another great Kore-eda film about a family.

Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound reminds us that the idea of performed moments of reflection on past relationships was also a feature of After Life (Japan 1998) and that the filmmaking scenes in this new film, because it is shot in a studio with green screen have a ramshackle quality and an artificiality which is reminiscent of the earlier film. He points out there is also a specific ‘memory object’, a crucial element in the earlier film, which is also important here. In this case it is a child’s toy, a theatre which has been broken but which will be mended during a fleeting visit by Pierre, Fabienne’s estranged husband and young Charlotte’s grandfather – the theatre was made for Lumir, the daughter who struggles with dreams of being an actor like her mother.

Fabienne and Lumir with the toy theatre.

The Japanese references come mainly from the setting in Autumn and the use of the location of Fabienne’s house. Kore-eda tells us:

I wanted the story to take place in autumn because I wanted to superimpose what the heroine goes through at the end of her life onto the landscapes of Paris at the end of summer. I hope people will see how the greens of the garden change subtly as winter approaches, accompanying the relationship between mother and daughter and colouring this moment of their lives. (Press Pack statement.)

Much of this is achieved by overhead shots of the garden but there is also a stunning image of a single tree seen, through the windows of the house, that is inserted almost like an Ozu pillow shot. This leads in turn to Fabienne’s solo walk with her little dog to a small East Asian restaurant (Chinese, I think?) in which she sits feeding her dog and watching a small family gathering celebrating something with an older woman as the centre of attention. This whole sequence seems very much part of Kore-eda’s world and its effects/affects are enhanced by the cinematography of Éric Gautier whose extraordinary list of credits includes recent work with Jia Zhang-ke on Ash is Purest White (2018) and Summer Hours (2008) by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche in a family melodrama which some have seen as another comparison candidate. I was equally impressed with the music in the film by the Russian composer Alexei Aigui. Kore-eda tells his story through subtle mise en scène and music nearly as much as through his direction of his wonderful cast. I must also pick out the young girl playing Charlotte. One of Kore-eda’s greatest strengths is his direction of children. Charlotte is a very important character and Kore-eda generously recognises Ethan Hawke’s contribution in helping Clémentine Grenier, who never been on a film set before, play the role so effectively.

There is a great deal more to say about the film but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure. This is a perfectly-formed work of art by one of the very best living filmmakers. I hope you can get to see it. Here’s a short clip from early in the film which includes a reference to Fabienne’s great rival as actor and star, Sarah Mondavon.