Category: Melodrama

Moving On (Nam-mae-wui yeo-reum-bam, South Korea 2019)

Grandad’s house and the family together

A familiar East Asian family melodrama, the family in Moving On comprises three generations, including two pairs of siblings. Young teenager Ok-ju (Choi Jung-woon) and her little brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) have to move out of their home with their father at the start of the summer holidays. It looked to me as if most of the houses in the street have been condemned for some kind of urban renewal. But it’s also clear that Dad is short of money after his separation/divorce. He does at least have a small van/people carrier which he uses as his base for selling shoes by the roadside. He takes his children and the family’s worldly goods to his father’s house – a quite palatial old building by comparison. Grandad is retired and has been taken to hospital, possibly suffering from heatstroke but he is required to have a scan as a precaution. There is plenty of room in the old house – just as well because soon Dad’s sister turns up, pursued a few days later by the husband she is trying to escape. He is sent away and the new family unit begins to work out a way of living together.

Dong-ju entertains the family

Moving On is the début film of writer-director Yoon Dan-bi, one of several young women making a splash in South Korean cinema in recent years. I’ve called this film a melodrama, mainly because it is a drama of relationships within a family and because, although fresh in itself, it calls to mind similar family dramas from across the region in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. It isn’t a melodrama of ‘excess’ but it does include a few potent songs and even a couple of spirited dances by Dong-ju. The old house plays an important role in the film and there is a real feel for the possibilities of mise en scène. It is a two story house with a wood-panelled interior and internal doors on the staircase that demarcate the upstairs and downstairs worlds. Ok-ju is quick to claim the upstairs bedroom and to keep out her brother, though she does allow her aunt to join her later. The house also has a balcony that overlooks the lush walled garden. I think it is also important that there are many scenes of the family cooking and eating together. I read a Korean-based reviewer who suggests that the location is the port city of Inchon and I suspect that the house is representative of a more traditional Korean family home in an area of narrow streets and houses with high-walled gardens. The film certainly appears to have made an impression winning several awards at mainly East Asian festivals.

Byunggi and Mijung are siblings backin the family home thinking about care for their father

The time period of the summer holidays provides both space for each of the characters to reflect on their situation and an end point on which they must focus. Father Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) is attempting to study so that he can get a well-paid job, Ok-ju has a tentative relationship with a boy who lives some distance away. She is also just beginning to develop adolescent anxieties about her looks, especially her eyes which she thinks need to be ‘fixed’ by plastic surgery. Dong-ju is a lively small boy who simply enjoys each day as it comes, but he does want to see his mother – who is clearly out of favour with Ok-ju. The aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) has separated from her husband and is contemplating divorce. But the pressing situation which underpins many of the other discussions is Grandad’s deteriorating health. If Byunggi and Mijung get jobs, they will need to hire a carer for him and the children will also bear some of the burden. They look into the possibility of a care home but Ok-ju is shocked by this and by the prospect of the house being sold. Ok-ju gradually becomes the central character of the narrative with a couple of (mis)adventures of her own and in the closing section of the film there is a moving scene in which we appear to be experiencing Ok-ju dreaming. The whole closing sequence is emotional and I felt, very convincing. It is worth noting that the last three shots, as the closing music begins, are of the house interior, the clothesline on the balcony and the garden.

Ok-ju and Dong-ju in a taxi on a family mission

Since Moving On appeared in the same Borderlines Festival programme as Minari it is difficult not to compare them. Although the two films are very different in some ways, they do have characters and situations which correspond. Though Moving On is a début feature, I found it more satisfying. Minari seems to ask big questions but I didn’t feel so engaged with the family. Moving On has been seen as one of the best South Korean films of the year and its strength is in the attention to detail and the feel for the characters. All of the performances are good but I must pick out Choi Jung-woon as Ok-ju. She manages a wide array of emotional moments with aplomb. I’d also pick out and also the cinematography of Kim Ji-hyeon. I’ve read different reviews and in one the writer complained that Yoon Dan-bi was being compared to Kore-eda Hirokazu and that this takes away from her own distinctive approach. I can see the point being made but I think it is inevitable that if you have watched films over many years by Ozu Yasijuro and by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang as well as Kore-eda, you will marvel at how Yoon Dan-bi, not yet 30 when she made this feature, has been able to to present a family drama with such sensitivity and capture relationships with authenticity. In the YouTube clip below the trailer you’ll find a short film exploring the ‘Women Directors Leading South Korean Cinema Into its Next Century’. There are 10 of them and Yoon Dan-bi is the first featured. I’m also pleased that two more of the directors appear on this blog with their films House of Hummingbird (2019) and The House of Us (2019). South Korean cinema has much to offer international audiences and it’s great to see these women coming forward.

180° Rule (Iran 2020)

The family group at a magical wedding

This debut feature by Farnoosh Samadi is relatively short (around 83 minutes). Ms Samadi has mostly been working on short films, writing several and also co-writing a feature with Ali Asgari. Her own film deals with two familiar social issues that have been dealt with by several Iranian directors and, for international audiences, most notably by Asghar Farhadi. The first is the highly patriarchal nature of Iranian society which allows women to do many things but still requires them to seek permission from a husband or a father. The second issue is the propensity to lie to avoid social conflict or criticism. This latter can be seen as a widespread concern about the corruption of a society – many people in Iran seem to be ‘living a lie’. It forms the basis for Farhadi’s film About Elly (Iran 2009) but is also an important element of other Iranian films. I suspect it is a form of lying most associated with the middle class who have status to lose (as well as the arrogance for some to feel that they are ‘above the law’ or, more radically, that the law is an ass and it should be challenged). This latter is much more dangerous in a state like Iran.

The basic outline of this drama presents Sara as a middle-class woman who works in a girls school where she appears to be a respected and trusted member of staff, to whom the girls might take a problem. She has a young daughter of her own and a husband, Hamed, an executive given several ‘missions’ which require him to fly to various locations on trips lasting a few days. As the narrative begins it is clear that he has not asked for leave to attend Sara’s niece’s wedding some distance away in the North of the country. He is then sent out on another ‘mission’ (the subtitles are rather basic) but he forbids Sara to go to the wedding because he doesn’t think she is competent to drive herself and their daughter. Sara has bought a dress for what is intended to be a magical wedding in a forest and her young daughter (of around five) has learned a song to sing as the bridesmaid. Of course, Sara is going to defy a husband who is being unreasonable. I’m not going to spoil what is not a particularly complex plot but fate is not kind to Sara. Her family rally round to protect her but Sara makes the mistake of constructing a lie to cover what she feels is a failing on her part. She is in a state of shock and understandably not thinking straight. Her family, principally her parents and her brother, collude with her but when Hamed returns he disproves her story quite quickly and becomes violently angry. What follows is a set of legal procedures that again are familiar from Farhadi’s films with a demonstration of the male authority which permeates the whole system. Sara’s response is to remain silent throughout, in some ways an eloquent commentary on the the inequality of the legal system. Sara then finds herself facing further problems related to her position at the school and in particular her interaction with a specific student which points to another, separate but connected social issue for women. The narrative concludes with an ending that may divide audiences.

Sara has a difficult time in her marriage as this shallow focus shot connotes

The strongest aspect of this film is the central performance by Sahar Dolatshahi, an actor who featured in Permission (Iran 2018), another film about a woman denied permission by her husband. She also stars in an earlier, and better, film Inversion (Iran 2016) in which she plays an independent woman pressurised by her family to give up her independence. The actor playing Hamed, Pejman Jamshidi, is given little to do other than to be angry. I’ve read that he is generally known for comedy roles. I think that this film could have been an effective melodrama given the events in the narrative but the overall presentation of the film seems quite ‘functional’, apart from the spectacle of the wedding in the forest. True, it does begin with a close-up of milk boiling over on the stove and later there is a folkoric natural event that is often seen as a warning. But again, I didn’t really notice the score and rather than the ‘excess’ of a traditional melodrama, the mise en scène of the film added little. I have managed to find an interview with the director in which she explains that she has always been interested in the ‘secrets and lies’ that play such a strong role in Iranian social life. She has envisaged a trilogy of films and this is the first (which draws on the experiences of one of her friends). She does at one point admit: “Unfortunately, due to time and financial problems, I did not have the chance to rehearse with the cast and I just used my experiences from making short films. I always tried to choose my cast based on what I feel is the closest image to my film’s characters”. It is difficult to make low budget films and as well as the pressure of time, what tends to happen is that the there is not enough paid development time for the script and planning the shoot.

Sara’s brother attacks Hamed because of his treatment of Sara

The title of the film requires some explanation for those readers not part of the film industry or film academia. I don’t know if the film has a different title in Farsi but I’m assuming that this English title refers to the convention of ‘not crossing the line’ – here is a brief explanation on Wikipedia. The convention is helpful in filmmaking if the intention is always to ensure that the audience knows where the characters are in relation to each other in any setting. What does it mean in the context of this film? It seems to be metaphorical in that Sara has ‘crossed a line’ and finds herself in the ‘wrong place’. But there might be a more specific reason for the title.

The social issues in this film are important and Farnoosh Samadi faces many problems as a woman trying to write and direct films in Iran. I want to support her intentions but I feel that the film feels a little undercooked for international distribution. On the other hand I’m pleased that we are still able to see films coming out of Iran and this was my second film at the Borderlines Festival – where it was included as part of the ‘F-rated’ strand. My next screening is another Iranian film but I expect a rather different experience. A contrasting Iranian film directed by a woman is Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019).

Minari (US 2020)

Father and son building a new life in Arkansas . . .

Minari ‘opens’ this week in the UK with British Film Institute support and it arrives trailing clouds of praise as this year’s ‘indie’ hit film. It has received six Oscar nominations among many others and it has been presented as a ‘feelgood film’ about assimilation. Several reviews make references to the attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump, and how this film might be seen as a positive representation. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company and it’s the fourth feature by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is a 1980s-set family melodrama inspired by the director’s own childhood growing up on an Arkansas farm as the son of Korean migrants. Everybody appears to love the film but on a first viewing I found I was left with several questions. Fortunately I watched it as part of the Borderlines Film Festival which allows 24 hours to watch the film online and I’ve been able to review parts of the film.

Monica and jacob have different ideas about what the future might hold

The narrative begins with the arrival of a family in rural Arkansas after leaving their home in California (a kind of reverse migration to those of the 1930s immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jacob Yi (Stephen Yuen) has bought a piece of land but his wife Monica (the Korean actor Han Ye-ri) is dismayed to discover that the accommodation on it is a large ‘trailer home’. They have two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her younger brother David (Alan Kim). Anne is under-used as a character and the focus is clearly on David who has a congenital heart condition. One of Monica’s concerns is how far they are from a hospital. The opening scenes establish that Jacob holds dear to one kind of American Dream, imagining himself as a kind of pioneer homesteader and Monica has a more modern sense of an urban life with all its advantages. The reality is that any income will have to come from chicken sexing for a local poultry business before the new farm venture produces any returns. Jacob’s idea is to grow ‘Korean vegetables’, since as he points out, 30,000 new migrants arrive from Korea each year.

David emerges as the focus of the emotion in the narrative, even if his father’s actions drive the story

What is important in the family drama is that this is the US in the 1980s. I’m not good on dating film settings since I don’t recognise changes in motor vehicle designs, so I didn’t know the time period until I learned that Monica’s father had died during the Korean War. I couldn’t discern everything the local bank manager says to Jacob, but he does actually make the statement “Reagan is good for farmers like you”. This is nonsense since Reagonomics was actually very bad for small farmers (the Farm Aid campaign began in 1985 because of the crisis for family farms). The film’s dialogue is in Korean with subtitles for the family conversations. Director Chung doesn’t give us much back story but it would seem that David was certainly born in the US, and we know Monica was born in Korea. A photograph at the end of the film shows a Korean wedding photo, but I don’t know if Anne was born in South Korea. It’s my problem, I suppose but I wanted to know more and this worried me throughout the narrative. The political situation in South Korea up to 1987-8 was very bad but this doesn’t figure in any conversations. Monica’s mother magically appears in Arkansas bringing gifts from ‘home’. Bringing Grandma (the veteran Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung) into the household is presented as Jacob’s attempt to assuage Monica’s anger at the situation she finds herself in but the biggest impact is actually on David who develops a relationship with his Korean grandmother, at first confrontational but later close and loving. It’s this relationship which arguably earns the film the feelgood label.

The family is introduced to the local church congregation

Minari is presented in a CinemaScope format for the photography of Lachlan Milne (who shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople, (New Zealand 2016)) with a score by Emile Mosseri which I didn’t really notice first time round (I find some soundtracks don’t work well online unless you have a home cinema system). It’s certainly a well-made film with strong performances and direction. But what is it really saying? One aspect of the film that will perhaps confuse some UK audiences is the role of religion. The family decide to become members of a local church (which provides a bus for the children). This is the so-called ‘Bible belt’ of the US and the locals seem remarkably friendly. Jacob doesn’t appear to be a believer as such but finds himself employing a local farmhand played by Will Patton, who turns out to be a Korean War veteran and someone so devout he carries his own full size crucifix along the local roads on a Sunday (cf Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock UK 2020). In an interview, director Chung explains that the Korean migrants to the US in the 1980s were often funded by US Protestant church organisations. He himself was, as a child, part of the local church community but has now begun to feel that: “the church has quite frankly been a harmful thing. There have been times in my own life where I’ve let faith bring out bigotry in me, and I realised that I had to grow and learn and question things”. This interview by Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound, March 2021 is very interesting. (I’m not sure how to deal with the Korean names associated with this film, I usually put the family name first, but this is often reversed in the US. I’m not sure if the family name of the director is ‘Chung’ or ‘Lee’, both common Korean family names.)

The title ‘Minari’ refers to a South-East Asian vegetable, similar in some ways to watercress in the UK – it thrives by running water. Grandma smuggles in seeds to the US and plants them on the farm by a stream and they thrive. The film ends with these minari plants which creates a set of meanings I won’t spoil. As I’ve tried to indicate, this is a well-made film which raises for me many interesting issues but possibly didn’t work as the family melodrama I hoped it would be. I’m still glad I saw it and it may become an interesting film to work with in future. Whether it will become a big hit in the UK, I don’t know (and anyway with online releases, how do we tell?). I think my problem is more to do with how the film has been discussed in the US and how it is being treated as an ‘awards film’. I’ve cropped the top and bottom of the poster image above, but the central group composition is left untouched. This presents what I would consider a very good image to use for a semiotic analysis. The family composition seems to be seeking a reference to the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, specifically Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013). Ozu is another director referenced by reviewers, especially a film like Ohayu (Japan 1959). I’m surprised that Edward Yang hasn’t also been mentioned because of Yi-Yi (Taiwan 2000). These are all family melodramas with young boys as central characters. Note also the hazy sun connoting that ‘feelgood’ sense. (Or is it meant to be ‘magic hour light’ as used in Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick, one of the directors Chung namechecks?) The position of the figures in the composition refers to aspects of the conflicts in the film. Husband and wife are separated by the children. He looks down but she looks at him. What is she thinking? The daughter too looks down and the focus is clearly on the smiling David who in effect ‘owns’ the image. I’m not sure if the huge American flag on the building appears in the film. Perhaps I noticed it in the poster because the current right-wing UK government is plastering itself with Union Jacks? It seems here to raise questions of identity and the American dream which always invoke mixed emotions for me.

Grandma Soonja down by the creek with the minari

I think one of the issues with my readings of this film is that I simply don’t know enough about the Korean migration to the US. I think it is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of migrations we make comparisons between host countries and migration flows. The UK and the US are both similar and different in many ways but our experience of migrations is certainly different. The concept of ‘assimilation’ and the embrace of new values v. the desire to maintain contact with your roots has been a major difference between the US and UK, though that might be changing. At the moment I’m deeply saddened by the nationalistic and jingoist nonsense of the current UK government, following on from the ‘America first’ of Trump. I note that Lee Isaac Chung has said that he was careful not to judge the people he knew in Arkansas, many of whom have become Trump supporters. I’ll be interested to see how the reception of this film plays out in the UK.

The Shiralee (UK-Australia 1957)

Macauley and Buster

The Shiralee is the fourth of Ealing Studios’ Australian films and I think it is an impressive melodrama, revisiting a familiar Ealing genre from the late 1949s and early 1950s. By this point in 1957 Ealing had sold its studio facilities to the BBC and left the uncertain embrace of the Rank Organisation to take up residence at MGM-British in Borehamwood. This did at least have the promise of better international distribution even if the Ealing team did feel that something had been lost in the move.

Two of Paul Beeson’s framings of Macauley’s and Buster’s journey

A ‘shiralee’ is a slang term borrowed from indigenous Australian languages which means a burden of some kind. It was often used to refer to the ‘swag’, the few possessions that an itinerant worker carried with him from one small town or farm to another. Ealing was fortunate to be able to cast Peter Finch, who was born in the UK, grew up in Australia and then became an actor back in the UK, as the swagman. It’s hard to imagine any other actor quite so qualified to play the role. Finch had appeared in a small part in Ealing’s 1949 Australian film Eureka Stockade and had gradually moved into lead roles in British cinema. He had a terrible reputation (gleefully celebrated by the press) as a boozing womaniser. He was also a bloody good actor. The story was adapted from a first novel by D’Arcy Niland. The script was by the director Leslie Norman and Neil Paterson. Norman had been on Harry Watt’s productions for The Overlanders and his other films in East Africa and Australia and by this time had become a director after many years as an editor and associate producer.

Macauley meets up again with Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris)

A brief outline of the plot reveals Peter Finch as ‘Macauley’ the swagman who returns to his Sydney flat after weeks (months?) away to discover his wife and her lover. Incensed, he grabs his young daughter ‘Buster’ (Dana Mason) and heads out back on the road. In the adventures that follow in road movie fashion he moves from one small job to another as Buster becomes more attached to her father despite the hardships. They travel by means of walking and hitching rides. Macauley makes both friends and enemies wherever he goes and his past catches up with in the form of a woman he once knew well, Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris). His friends prove his saviour with boarding-house keepers played by Sid James and Tessie O’Shea. The narrative begins with the possibility of a social drama structured as a road movie but gradually changes and moves towards melodrama. Macauley is constrained by the need to look after his daughter (she appears to be around seven) even though she is a trouper and quite self reliant. He is used to his freedom and some employers are reluctant to hire him with the girl. We are also not surprised to discover that his wife Marge (Elizabeth Sellars) still has an interest in Buster. The last section of the narrative moves rapidly in melodrama mode. The ending may be considered to be a familiar Ealing restoration of a form of order, although what’s gone before suggests that life for Macauley and for Buster won’t be all quiet domesticity.

Elizabeth Sellars as Macauley’s wife and Buster’s mother

The end section of the narrative does seem a little rushed (though the film is 99 minutes) but the ‘darkness’ of the melodrama has been hinted at in some of Paul Beeson’s camerawork. Beeson had begun his career as a focus-puller at Ealing in 1939 and had 18 Ealing productions under his belt before he stepped up to shoot West of Zanzibar for Harry Watt in 1954. The Shiralee was his 4th DoP credit. On the shoot in Australia and back at MGM-British he had around him many of the longstanding Ealing creatives including Jim Morahan as art director, Stephen Dalby as sound designer (though not called that in 1957) and Gordon Stone as editor. His photography captures the landscape which several critics refer to as ‘barren’ or similar but to me looks like open pasture for sheep. It’s also referred to by some as the ‘outback’. I’m not sure how that term works for Australians? Perhaps it is metaphorical for anything outside the cities? I would link it to the idea of the ‘bush’, i.e. land that has not been farmed or ‘fenced’ – though the latter has other meanings in Australia?

Sid James and Tessie O’Shea, more than ‘comic relief’

The other criticisms of the film include the insertion of Sid James and Tessie O’Shea as a ‘comedy relief’ couple. It’s true that Ealing was fond of inserting characters who might provide comic relief and I have previously worried about Tommy Trinder in various Ealing films (e.g. The Foreman Went to France, 1942) and he did appear in another Ealing Australian film Bitter Springs (1950). But Trinder was a recognised comedian. Sid James had been appearing as a character actor in British films since 1947. True, he had gained fame on radio and then on TV in Hancock’s Half Hour since 1954 and this was perhaps why the charge was made. Tessie O’Shea fulfilled the ‘larger than life’ character type and the jokes appear in The Shiralee, especially in the ‘banter’ when she visits a butcher’s shop.  But again, she could play character parts and I think that both James and O’Shea work well in the film. One of the issues here is that British film criticism in the 1950s was still mired in the dispute between realism (good) and any form of expressionism (bad). Social comedy has always been a problem for middle-class critics I think. It’s interesting that Ealing’s late 1940s comedies were praised but in the 1950s, apart from The Ladykillers in 1955, it was the comedies or films with comedic elements that were often seen as failures. One other addition to this film was the attempt to connect to the new pop music of 1957 with a Tommy Steele song. This is sung over a blank screen before the opening credits like the ‘overture’ of a 1950s musical. Unfortunately this title song is poorly recorded and uses an oversweet girl group chorus. It is followed by John Addison’s orchestral score under the credits with hints of an American Western before an Australian voiceover narrates an introduction to the ‘swagman’. Steele has a second unmemorable song written by Lionel Bart later in the film. He had become the UK’s first modern pop star in 1956 as a skiffle performer moving into early rock ‘n roll and his banjo playing might have worked well in a more ‘raw’ version of the title song. It seems Ealing wasn’t quite ready yet for new ‘youth music’.

How long can Macauley and Buster put up with domesticated Aussie life in the 1950s?

In his Zoom lecture on Ealing in Australia last week, Stephen Morgan referred to the last two Ealing films in Australia as ‘moving away from the community ideas of the 1940s’. I think he sees this as Australian film beginning to define itself in opposition to the British and American films made in Australia – or possibly it just marks the general (and regressive) move away from collectivism to American-style individualism? But is this what really happens? In The Shiralee,  I think that Macauley is in one sense a loner who antagonises some folk but who also makes firm friendships. The film does restore ‘order’ in the community but it’s one mainly on his terms. Having said that, I’m not sure how long the new ‘equilibrium’ will survive. Unfortunately Ealing itself couldn’t last long after 1957. This is, I think, one of the more satisfactory late Ealing films. Ealing itself had lost much of its earlier community feel during the 1950s. I will try at some point to cover the other two Australian Ealing productions and then think about the whole ‘overseas Ealing’ project.

I watched The Shiralee on Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ Vol. 5 DVD. It has also been shown on Talking Pictures TV as in the trailer below:

Haruka’s Pottery (Haruka no sue, Japan 2019)

One of the aims of the Japan Foundation Film Tour is to introduce UK audiences to aspects of Japanese culture and this title fulfils that role more directly than most. The insistency of the importance of craft skills is a key feature of both Japanese arts and crafts and industry and commerce. In recent years I can remember watching films about the art of sushi preparation and achieving the perfect ramen dish. The titular character of this film is Haruka (Honda Nao), a young office worker in Tokyo who is unfulfilled by her job and her life in general. One day, accompanying her boss on a shopping trip, she is taken into an exhibition of Bizen ware pottery in a department store. Unaccountably, she falls in love with a large plate in the small exhibition and, noting the potter’s name, she determines to seek him out.

Bizen is an area in the prefecture of Okayama in the South of Honshu, the main island of Japan and some 4 or 5 hours from Tokyo by train. The main pottery centre is Imbe and Haruka decides to visit the town to see if she can find the potter Wakatake. Bizen ware dates back to the 16th century but could be linked to earlier pottery styles. In danger of dying out in the 20th century, it was maintained by a small number of potters until in 1982 it was designated a ‘traditional Japanese craft’ by the Japanese government with around 300 potters at the start of the 21st century (see Wikipedia entry). This film is a fiction but it seems to be accurate in terms of the processes and the potteries shown.

Wakatake is not very communicative . . .

When Haruka arrives she struggles in the heat of summer to find Wakatake’s pottery but by chance meets an older man who directs her to the building. She doesn’t realise it yet but the older man is a ‘National Treasure’, an official designation for a skilled craftsman now mainly retired. When Haruka meets Wakatake he is incommunicative and unwelcoming. Haruka is persistent and eventually when the ‘National Treasure’ re-appears he tells Wakatake that he will never become a great potter if he doesn’t communicate with people and express this in his work. He suggests that Wakatake should accept Haruka as an apprentice and she readily agrees although she has been treated quite rudely. Unperturbed, Haruka returns to Tokyo to settle her affairs and starts as an apprentice in Imbe.

The ‘National Treasure’ in the karaoke bar

Wakatake Osamu is a highly-skilled potter but he has not got over the deaths of his parents. His father was a master craftsman who taught his son well but the stressful life of the potter is an issue for someone with poor mental health. The second section of the film sees Haruka trying to find a way around her master’s ‘prickliness’ and refusal to teach her directly. She must watch and listen (and do the chores). It occurred to me that this is the Japanese way of learning ‘on the job’ that was used in the Japanese film industry of the 1930s and is discussed in Kurosawa Akira’s writings. In the UK this used to be called ‘sitting next to Nelly’. It’s a time-consuming process but a long apprenticeship conducted in this way can work very well. It then requires proper support when the apprentice has to ‘fly solo’ for the first time. It wouldn’t really make sense to pad the film narrative out to cover several years so I think the process we see is time-compressed and geared to the annual calendar in Imbe.

Haruka helps out in the fields – a relief from her struggle with Wakatake’s behaviour

Each year Imbe holds a Bizen festival with demonstrations and exhibitions which has become a tourist attraction. After this in the Autumn the potters begin firing the kilns. This is particularly stressful because of the qualities of the local clay which require the kilns to reach a very high temperature but to do so gradually. They must be watched and fed with wood 24 hours a day over several days – this is when the strain becomes very great. If the process fails, the potter could lose all the pieces produced in the previous season. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess what happens with carefully orchestrated setbacks and later triumphs.

Haruka’s Pottery is an independent film whereas all the other titles I’ve seen on the tour have been from major studio brands or affiliated, established distributors. It was still shot in ‘Scope but with a debut writer-director and a largely inexperienced cast and crew, apart from the two actors playing Wakatake (Hirayama Hiroyuki) and the ‘National Treasure’ (Sasano Takashi). It’s also slightly problematic that there are relatively few promotional websites with details of the production or useful materials. The film actually looks pretty good with only two main locations, a brief section in Tokyo and then most of the set-ups in Imbe. The music score comprises slow and gentle piano with what sounded like folk music sequences. The narrative is fairly predictable and the leisurely running time of just under two hours could perhaps be reduced, but the main attraction of the film is the detailed illustration of the potter’s technique and the process of firing the pieces in the kiln. The human story is about how the apprentice helps to ‘humanise’ her ‘master’ allowing him to express himself through his work and to deal with the loss of his parents. There are flashbacks in which we see him as a boy with his parents. For Haruka it is a case of finding something she loves to do and finding herself through the challenges that working with Wakatake and struggling with the techniques of the wheel and the kiln that are thrown up for her. As a takeaway message about Japanese culture, the film stresses that great art needs ‘soul’ – something of the potter must be in the pot and the more the potter gives, the more pleasing the piece will be.

I did worry that this would be too ‘nice’ a film but I enjoyed it for what it is – an entertaining and informative film and a nice contrast to some of the more dramatic films that appeared in my selection from the Japan Foundation Tour.

The trailer below lacks English subs. Below it is a link to the Japan Foundation Q&A and discussion about the film.

Shape of Red (Red, Japan 2020)

Adapted from the 2014 novel Red by Shimamoto Rio (one of the most celebrated and prolific younger writers in Japan), this is a traditional Japanese female-centred melodrama (directed by Mishima Yukiko, the only female director out of my first five films on the tour). I rather liked it. As with all the other offerings I’ve watched on the Japan Foundation Film Tour, it is presented in ‘Scope (1:2.35). The structure is non-linear, beginning with a phone call from a public phone by the central character Toko in the midst of swirling snow. But soon we flash back to see her in her domestic setting. The flashbacks are not signalled so it takes some time to fully understand the narrative chronology.

Toko makes a call during the snowstorm

We soon realise that Toko is married to a wealthy young man and that they have a young daughter. Toko’s mother-in-law always seems to be around and her husband Shin is very conservative, seemingly doing only what his parents decree is appropriate and this includes Toko as a domesticated housewife/mother. By modern standards Toko has accepted a role that should have disappeared years ago.

. . . with Kurata

I don’t want to reveal too much plot but, by chance, Toko meets an old flame from ten years earlier. This is Kurata, an architect who reminds her of what might have been. Despite opposition at home, Toko decides to return to work and joins the architecture and design company where Kurata has a senior position. The head of the firm, Kodaka is an interesting character who acts as a kind of agent provocateur, taking an interest in Toko and proving perceptive about her relationship with Kurata. Toko and Kurata work together on a project in Niigata Prefecture, North of Tokyo and on the other side of Honshu, towards the Western coast. This means trips over the mountains and frequent heavy snow in winter, preventing Toko from getting home on time.

Kodaka provokes action by Toko

The ‘red’ of the title is a melodrama symbol for passion, danger and even directly for blood. The film’s dialogue and mise en scène also have a number of important symbolic references. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Toko and Kurata become lovers. He reveals how important the book ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Tanazaki Junichiro is to him. This particular book is about Japanese and Western aesthetics and their possible influences on architecture. But Tanazaki, one of the biggest names in ‘modern’ 20th century Japanese literature, is also associated with novels about adultery, desire and eroticism. The couple also had a favourite album when they were together earlier, an LP by Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is their favourite track. It’s a much misunderstood song about desire. The film’s title is underlined by a red cloth tied to a protruding cargo of wooden poles carried on a truck the couple are following in a snow storm – which eventually blows off and lands in the snow. Toko’s story – that of the repressed woman restricted to housework and childcare – is directly referenced when she is told, accusingly, “you are not in the Doll’s House”, citing the Ibsen play from 1879. This kind of European play was influential in ‘modernising’ Japanese ideas during the Meiji period. There is definitely an ‘excess’ of symbolism. I particularly like the architectural model house which Toko and Kurata create. Toko then feels that the main window should be larger so she can see out more.

. . . a bigger window for their ideal house

I’ve read all the reviews I could find on this film. Many fall into the opposing camps of an old-fashioned story that is now out of date vs. this cruel woman who would leave her beautiful little daughter and comfortable life for a selfish romance. There is an interesting feature in the Japan Times in which the director and co-scriptwriter (with Ikeda Chihiro) Mishima Yukiko explains that she thinks that many women in Japan are trapped like Toko in marriages in which they feel pressurised to conform and not think about what they really want. Mishima is an experienced filmmaker who clearly knows the power of traditional melodrama and feels that she knows ‘what women really want’. The Japan Times review by veteran critic Mark Schilling, however, suggests that there is already a “thriving subgenre of Japanese films about women who leave their ruts and find their grooves” – and Red looks by comparison like a “frustratingly retro drama”. Schilling suggests that Toko is too weak a character – a charge also made by Toko’s mother. I can’t claim any real knowledge of contemporary Japanese society but I would expect that Toko’s ‘entrapment’ is an issue in upper-class conservative households but not so prevalent for young educated women outside that group. Overall though I’m with the director. I did notice that the taboo of divorce and single parenthood features in several ways in this film, including the scene in which Toko is late picking up her daughter Midori from school with shaming consequences. I liked that Toko later reminds her husband that Midori has a father as well as a mother.

Shin, the conservative husband

Two other notable points about the film are the references to food, including Toko’s love of ‘simmered taro’, a form of yam-like root vegetable in broth and a typical food of Niigata, ‘noppe stew’. Early in the film there is a clash of dishes from Toko and her mother-in-law to be served to Shin. Like Miyamoto earlier in the tour, there are a couple of contrasting scenes of sexual activity in the film, carefully shot and edited but still deemed worth mentioning in the Japan Times review as relatively new in Japanese mainstream cinema. The performances from Kaho as Toko, Tsumabuki Satoshi as Kiruta and Emoto Tasuku as Kokada are excellent. Mamiya Shotaro as Shin is very well cast – I could see this actor playing a week young Emperor or Shogun, he exudes a certain kind of privilege. I’d like to see this film on a cinema screen but I fear that it would be difficult to put into UK distribution. Contemporary Japanese melodramas seem to appeal only to a minority of cinephiles here and that’s a shame.