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.
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.
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’.
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.
Once again, the UK gets a prizewinner from Cannes after a long wait – Poetry won the 2010 Script Prize. It was well worth the wait, so thanks go to distributor Arrow. We caught it in the comfortable surroundings of Chapter Arts in Cardiff. Poetry was written and directed by Lee Chang-dong, a novelist and scriptwriter/director who in 2003-4 acted as Minister for Culture and Tourism in South Korea. This long film (139 mins) is thoroughly absorbing and undoubtedly one of the major releases of the year – especially as it comes from what I presume is a small independent Korean operation.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Mija is 66 but still looking after her teenage grandson Wook in a semi-rural district outside Seoul. The boy’s mother is attempting to find work in South Korea’s second city, Busan (some 300km away). When Mija visits a doctor for a minor ailment he thinks that she has early onset Alzheimer’s and refers her to a Seoul hospital. But she then discovers that Wook is involved in a serious incident through his membership of a group of schoolfriends. The parents of the other boys want to pay to hush up the scandal. Mija has no money and gets by through her pension and part-time earnings looking after an elderly shop-owner who has suffered a stroke. Feeling hemmed in by her problems Mija seeks release through a new interest in poetry after enrolling in a local class and she takes her teacher’s words to heart. He asks all class members to try to write one poem by the end of the course and Mija is determined to do so.
I’m a big fan of Korean Cinema though I’ve seen fewer Korean films in the last few years as the ‘Korean Wave’ has receded a little in terms of international distribution. The opening of Poetry seems very familiar with children playing by the river and a stunning mountain landscape. I was reminded of Memories of Murder (2003), a different kind of film but sharing some elements. Lee Chang-dong, in the press notes (available here), has said that the idea for the film came to him when he was watching television in a Japanese hotel room – one of those late night programmes when beautiful images of landscapes and soothing music are supposed to help you go to sleep. His idea was to explore the need to write poetry as a response to desperation.
Mija is played by Yun Jung-hee who was a famous Korean film actor of the 1960s to 1990s but who hasn’t appeared in a film since 1994. Her presence will certainly mean something to older Korean audiences. As Mija, Yun is presented as slightly eccentric in floral outfits with her hat and precise ways. Although her situation is quite desperate she maintains an outward appearance of calm and beauty – in contrast to her monosyllabic and slobbish grandson.
It should be clear from the outline above that this is a potentially rich and rewarding story – although I haven’t perhaps ‘sold’ it thoroughly because I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure. The film was released a few weeks ago in the US and it has already provoked a fair amount of comment, especially in terms of what is taken to be the resolution of the narrative. Lee Chang-dong has admitted that he intended the film to be ‘open’:
“Like a page with a poem on it, I thought of a film with a lot of empty space. This empty space can be filled in by the audience. In this sense, you can say this is an ‘open’ film.” (from the Press Notes)
If Lee is inviting us to ‘fill the blanks’ there are several different ways in which we can do this. The screening at Chapter was part of a project called ‘Cardiff sciSCREEN’ in which various local academics contribute responses to a discussion about the film which is then open to audience involvement. If you want to know more about this, there is an interesting website here (which includes a useful Korean view of the film). I think that this is a great idea but I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion and I’m rather more concerned to discuss the film ‘as film’ rather than to engage in the wider debates about dementia and poetry. I’d like to emphasise as well that the film is rewarding for audiences without a specific interest in dementia or poetry. In fact, the narrative for me seemed to raise dementia as an issue but then let it subside from prominence in the narrative – Mija is in the very early stages of forgetting simple words but she copes well when she can’t remember a word. We, of course, feel for her at these points but she is driven by concerns that are more immediate.
What then should we say about the film narrative? At one level the film focuses on the ways in which Mija has been isolated as a woman within Korean society. When we see her in different situations we see her struggling to ‘speak’ (i.e. both literally and metaphorically) when she is in ‘male’ spaces (though, as we’ve noted, she’s determined and does get there). From what we learn of her past, she has suffered from neglect and perhaps abuse by men and her relationships have been with women. Her family is now an absent daughter and an unhelpful grandson. The younger women that she meets are seemingly more confident and less troubled about ‘isolation’ – but it is clear that the problem hasn’t gone away.
One of the features of the Korean films that I have seen is often the way in which seemingly straightforward genre films also deal with important social and political issues. Poetry is in some ways a conventionally ‘realist’ social drama and its social commentary is quite subtle. Mija would have been born in 1943/4 – before the end of the Japanese control of Korea – and most of her life has been lived before the accelerated growth of South Korean economy and contemporary culture since the 1980s. I think that this is evident in her encounters with the men in the film. She has the utmost respect for her poetry teacher (who seems a lovely man with unlimited patience – although he is saddened by what he sees as the decline of poetry) but she at first mistrusts the policeman who belongs to a poetry group because his behaviour is boorish and bawdy. But she is told that he has been sent to the sticks from Central Seoul because he exposed corruption. He’s really one of the good guys whereas the smooth-talking men who are the fathers of Wook’s schoolfriends are representative of the new culture. It’s worth trying to think through this critique of Korean culture as you try to puzzle out why Mija behaves in the ways she does. The visual style of the film is also subtle. Mija is sometimes shown in extreme long shot in relation to the river and the mountains and she travels everywhere by bus (I hadn’t noticed before that Korean bus drivers follow the Japanese model and wear white gloves). In the landscape and on the bus she is again ‘isolated’ – i.e. there is space around her. This is a contrast to her ‘hemmed in’ isolation in her meetings with men but I’m not sure that I’ve figured this use of space out yet.
There is quite a lot of poetry in the film – several short pieces are ‘performed’ in class and at social readings. I’ve heard several people say that the film narrative itself is like a poem, but I confess I don’t know what they mean by this – enlighten me, please! Anyway, you should go and see this. It would make an interesting (but very long!) double bill with Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009) which has many similar plot elements but a completely different approach. I read in a Senses of Cinema essay that cinema audiences in South Korea are primarily made up of women – young women I assume. If this is true it would be interesting to know what they made of the film. Its box office run in South Korea was interesting, opening on 192 screens for a No. 7 slot but a screen average below $1,000. It then improved in weeks 2 and 3 – a sure sign of good word of mouth – before dropping out of the Top Ten after four weeks with a gross of $1.08 million. So far it has done pretty well in the US and I hope the word of mouth builds here too.
Here’s the US trailer with English subs:
and when you’ve seen the film, try this review (which contains spoilers) from a Bangalore writer with an interesting perspective.