The Journals of Musan (무산일기, Park Jung-bum, 2011)

Journals of Musan posterIf you’ve made it out of North Korea, travelled all the way through China, and finally arrived in the promised land of the South, you might expect to find yourself in a kind of paradise free of violence, fear, and oppression, where opportunity and freedom rule. The reality, however, is rarely so pleasant. Those arriving from the North do so with little support, face constant stigma and the threat of exploitation, and may end up just as hungry and alone as before. The hero of Park Jung-bum’s Journals of Musan (무산일기, Musanilgi) is one such lonely soul who finds himself tested and betrayed until cheated even out of his own innocence.

After months in a resettlement centre, Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum) is living with a friend in a rundown flat next to a village knocked down to pave the way for yet another batch of swanky middle-class homes on the periphery of an ever expanding city. Assisted by a friendly policeman who urges him not to tell his prospective employers that he’s come from the North, only that he’ll work hard, Seung-chul looks for honest work but finds it difficult to come by, not only thanks to the mild stigma attached to being a defector but his relative lack of equivalent qualifications, and restrictions on his movements. Meanwhile his roommate, Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-ok), has decided the best buck’s a fast buck and started an individual enterprise “assisting” his fellow North Koreans sending money home via his uncle in China for a “small fee”. The only job Seung-chul can get is pasting up fliers for clubs and bars often over those for other establishments at the behest of an exploitative gang leader who rarely pays him and threatens to take the work away altogether if Seung-chul continues to refuse the less legal jobs he’s often “offered”.

Seung-chul is an innocent, godly soul who truly believes it should be possible to live honestly and with kindness in a land of freedom. His only refuge is the local church of which he is a devout member, but even here he is an invisible outsider who sits and eats alone only just brave enough to venture in in the first place. Developing a fondness for a pretty woman in the choir gives Seung-chul another reason to attend, and eventually a hope of a job too when he silently follows her to the karaoke bar she works in where they happen to be in need of another pair of hands.

The church, however, is just one of the many institutions to renege on their promises, offering relatively little in terms of real support to suffering men like Seung-chul who are granted only superficial welcome. Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), the young woman Seung-chul idolises, is ashamed of her job in the karaoke bar which she feels to be immoral and in conflict with her otherwise intense religiosity, taking against Seung-chul on spotting him at church in fear that he will spill the beans and out her as an impure woman among her flock. Seung-chul would never do such a thing, though as he points out he doesn’t have any friends there to spill the beans to anyway.

In any case he continues to admire her from afar while she remains oblivious though slightly irritated to think he may have formed an attachment to a “helper” girl after he gets into a fight with a drunken patron who was touching her inappropriately. “Why do you care about people like that?” she asks him, tellingly, exposing her religiosity as the puritanical kind all about rules and oppression and not at all about compassion or kindness. Sook-young looks down on the helper girls as fallen women, advising Seung-chul that a godly man like himself has no business falling for “that sort of girl” before firing him when she catches him singing hymns in the karaoke booth, convinced that his excuse of not knowing any other songs must be a lie.

Sook-young seems to have no idea Seung-chul is from the North. True enough he speaks little but no one picks up on his accent and he’s been trained not to volunteer the information for fear of rejection. Once she finds out, Sook-young is full of remorse, actively inducting Seung-chul into the church and making him her good deed for the day. It’s not only the social stigma that plagues Seung-chul, but a kind of exoticisation. Kyung-chul’s other sideline is earning money through lectures to anti-communist organisations to whom he parrots the accepted line on North Korea – the violence, the oppression, the famine, though stopping short of the full horror. Seung-chul, unwillingly dragged to a church support group, reveals the full extent of what it cost him to survive and discovers no one quite wanted that level of honesty or is willing to help him in the depths of his despair. All anyone wants of a defector is to say what it is they want to hear, any deviation from the accepted line will not be tolerated in an eerie echo of all they’ve escaped.

Gazing at an expensive tailored suit, Seung-chul chases dreams of success but finds only exploitation and abandonment. His only real attachment is to a little dog brought in off the street to whom he shows the tenderness no one has yet shown him but even this small comfort is not enough to sustain him in the fiercely capitalist environment of modern day Seoul. Seung-chul is presented with a choice, one which strains the fragile innocence he’d been careful to preserve for his new life, and finds himself no better than the world which surrounds him. North or South, survival has a price but you can damn yourself by paying it even in the knowledge that those around you sold out long ago.


The Journals of Musan was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍, Naoki Segi, 2011)

Ramen Samurai posterSet in the ‘90s, Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍) is in many ways a post-Showa story or a tale of one man’s reaction to bubble era disillusionment. It’s also in the fine tradition of legacy movies in which a troubled child reflects on a complicated relationship with a late parent and struggles to accept their role as an inheritor of skills and knowledge they’d spent much of their youth attempting to reject. Yet the hero of Ramen Samurai, though he maybe reluctant, is more willing than most to pick up his father’s burden, walking back through family history with his long-suffering mother and rediscovering the heroism which lay behind his sometimes difficult father’s tough guy exterior. Hikaru (Dai Watanabe) does not see himself as a man like his father – he’s no “hero” and bears no natural inclination towards rebellion, but only through addressing his father’s life can he learn to define his own. This is all, of course, a roundabout way to discovering the soul of ramen lies in the confidence of the chef.

In 1990 Hikaru, a graphic designer, gets a call at work from his mum to let him know his father has had a stroke. Hikaru left town in a hurry some years earlier, rejecting the idea of taking over the ramen restaurant for a life in bubble era Tokyo. On his father’s death he assumes his natural responsibility and comes home but customers say his ramen’s not as good as his dad’s, and he has trouble keeping his staff in line because they simply don’t accept him. Try as he might, Hikaru just can’t seem to find a way to replicate his father’s recipe, in the store or in life.

Yet there’s a nostalgia in him that sees him want to try. Kurume, a small town in Kyushu, is defined by its ramen – a local delicacy that once brought tourists and general prosperity to the area, but during bubble era “modernisation”, the “backward” yatai ramen stands with their colourful tarpaulins were deemed too reminiscent of post-war privation to survive. The carts were shunted away from the new sophisticated city centre while the police started restricting licenses to run them, eventually prohibiting their sale and limiting their inheritance to direct family members. Hikaru is at least his father’s son and so has a natural right to take over the business even if he has hitherto rejected it.

Rather than a cooking tale, Ramen Samurai steps back to tell the story of its vicarious protagonist – the problematic figure of Hikaru’s dad who is, in many ways, the idealised figure of the Showa era “hero”. That’s not to say he was perfect – he drank to the point of financial ruin and frequently caused problems for his family, but his heart was always in the right place and so he was mostly forgiven. A salt of the Earth type and cool with it, Hikaru’s dad was the big man around town and the defacto leader of the yatai owner community. He brooked no injustice, stood up to the yakuza (who only had the profoundest respect for him), and sought to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Seeing a sleazy yakuza molesting a young girl, Hikaru’s dad kicked him out and later offered the girl, who is mute, a job and a place to stay, almost adopting her into his family until another act of random kindness accidentally reunites her with her own long-lost father.

Faced with such an intense legacy, it’s no wonder Hikaru struggled. A sensitive, artistic soul he tried his luck in bubble era Tokyo working in an advertising agency where he found the coolness of his colleagues puzzling and difficult to bear. Hikaru’s boss loudly discusses pub lunches and evenings spent in hostess bars, often throwing away the lovingly made bento provided by his wife. Returning home with an empty lunchbox is, he says, his way of showing love though his refusal to eat it perhaps a reaction against a salaryman’s lack of freedom. Nevertheless, even if they clashed in terms of personal morality, Hikaru’s boss compliments him on his commitment to hard work and growth as an artist even whilst admitting that the work itself is often frivolous and ultimately thankless.

Hikaru eventually learns to channel his artistic inclinations into his ramen, seeing himself as a “ramen artist” incorporating his father’s legacy into a dish which is entirely his own. In a sense, Hikaru retreats into the safety of the Showa era past, or that is the cosy 1970s in which he lived a comfortable, if eventful, childhood under a yatai’s awning while dad made trouble but only for the best of reasons. A samurai’s duty is, after all, to protect and Hikaru has decided to do exactly that in “restoring” his hometown to its former glory, dragging retro yatai culture into the rapidly disintegrating post-bubble world and bringing warmth and community back with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ending Note: Death of a Japanese Salesman (エンディングノート, Mami Sunada, 2011)

emi_3For various reasons, external commentators on Japanese culture have long held the view that the idea of “death” takes on a much more central position in the lives of ordinary people than it might elsewhere. Death is, however, as much of a taboo in Japan as it is elsewhere – few want to talk about the process of death and dying, of illness and of caring for the sick. Perhaps as a way to evade this particular paradox, there is another tradition in which those aware of their own impending death write a kind of letter for those they will leave behind. Like a testament which accompanies a will, the “isho” can include biographical details, confessions, advice and apologies by way of a final word of parting and a demonstration of having accepted one’s death.

This concept is what inspires the subject of Mami Sunada’s documentary, Death of a Japanese Salesman (エンディングノート, Ending Note), in his desire to create an “Ending Note” when diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer shortly after retiring from a lifetime spent as a regular salaryman. Tomoaki Sunada’s “Ending Note” is intended to be something warmer than an isho and completely divorced from any legal concept but nevertheless a kind of letter saying the things it was too hard to say out loud.

Sunada captures her father’s last days with equal parts affection and detachment. Tomoaki is a humorous man whose wide grin and dry wit help to alleviate what is an unavoidably heavy subject as he comes to terms with the aggressive nature of his illness. The thing is, Tomoaki never gets round to writing that “Ending Note” because he’s just too busy living to think about dying. What he writes is a kind of bucket list which runs from typically practical concerns such as looking at venues in which his funeral might be held and talking over converting to Christianity, to definitively patching things up with his wife and getting to see his three grandchildren again who live abroad in America because of his son’s job.

Living in America Tomoaki’s son perhaps has things a little easier than his father did (even if he’s inherited Tomoaki’s notorious attention to detail and meticulous planning). As Tomoaki puts it in one of Sunada’s flashback moments, middle-aged men like him built the modern Japan. Exclaiming “The company is life!”, albeit with an ironic smile on his face he leaves for work just as he did every morning for over forty years at the same company and for most of it in marketing and sales. The traditional Japanese family demanded a strict division of labour with men pouring their efforts and emotions into their careers and women, supposedly, subsuming their hopes and desires into creating a happy family home. During their working lives, therefore, men like Tomoaki rarely got to see the families they were working to support, placing undue burdens on their wives and appearing as little more than absent disciplinarians to their children. Retirement offers an opportunity to finally become a part of family life, enjoying the days out and long lunches often so impossible for a company man, but Tomoaki has been robbed of the right to enjoy his old age by a cancer diagnosis received almost immediately after the end of his career.

Sunada in effect writes her father’s Ending Note for him, both through the film and the voice over narration she herself delivers written in her father’s playfully ironic authorial voice. Taking cheeky potshots at herself as the “accidental” youngest child whose still unmarried state apparently weighs on her dying father’s mind, Sunada adds both bite and warmth to her “father’s” final words as he waxes philosophical on death and the afterlife while trying to plan pragmatically for his own eventual end. The whimsical indie score also lends to the lightness of the exercise but Sunada does not shy away from the rapidity of her father’s decline or cruelty of his illness, taking her camera away only at the moment of death. Raw and painful, Sunada’s fearsome exploration of the process of dying is one of ordinary tragedy but also becomes a glorious celebration of life from all of its sadness and difficulties to shared laughter and the joy of new arrivals.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2011)

scabbard samuraiA samurai’s soul in his sword, so they say. What is a samurai once he’s been reduced to selling the symbol of his status? According to Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Sayazamurai) not much of anything at all, yet perhaps there’s another way of defining yourself in keeping with the established code even when robbed of your equipment. Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known comedians, made a name for himself with the surreal comedies Big Man Japan and Symbol but takes a low-key turn in Scabbard Samurai, stepping back in time but also in comedic tastes as the hero tests his mettle as a showman in a high stakes game of life and death.

Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is a samurai on the run. Wandering with an empty scabbard hanging at his side, he pushes on into the wilderness with his nine year old daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) grumpily traipsing behind him. Eventually, Nomi is attacked by a series of assassins but rather than heroically fighting back as any other jidaigeki hero might, he runs off into the bushes screaming hysterically. Nomi and Tae are then captured by a local lord but rather than the usual punishment for escapee retainers, Nomi is given an opportunity to earn his freedom if only he can make the lord’s sad little boy smile again before the time is up.

Nomi is not exactly a natural comedian. He’s as sullen and passive as the little lord he’s supposed to entertain yet he does try to come up with the kind of ideas which might amuse bored children. Given one opportunity to impress every day for a period of thirty days, Nomi starts off with the regular dad stuff like sticking oranges on his eyes or dancing around with a face drawn on his chest but the melancholy child remains impassive. By turns, Nomi’s ideas become more complex as the guards (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) begin to take an interest and help him plan his next attempts. Before long Nomi is jumping naked through flaming barrels, being shot out of cannons, and performing as a human firework but all to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tae looks on with contempt as her useless father continues to embarrass them both on an increasingly large stage. Tae’s harsh words express her disappointment with in Nomi, berating him for running away, abandoning his sword and with it his samurai honour, and exposing him as a failure by the code in which she has been raised. She watches her father’s attempts at humour with exasperation, unsurprised that he’s failed once again. Later striking up a friendship with the guards Tae begins to get more involved, finally becoming an ally and ringmaster for her father’s newfound career as an artist.

Tae and the orphaned little boy share the same sorrow in having lost their mothers to illness and it’s her contribution that perhaps begins to reawaken his talent for joy. Nomi’s attempts at comedy largely fall flat but the nature of his battle turns out to be a different one than anyone expected. Tae eventually comes around to her father’s fecklessness thanks to his determination, realising that he’s been fighting on without a sword for all this time and if that’s not samurai spirit, what is? Nomi makes a decision to save his honour, sending a heartfelt letter to his little girl instructing her to live her life to the fullest, delivering a message he was unable to express in words but only in his deeds.

Matsumoto’s approach is less surreal here and his comedy more of a vaudeville than an absurd kind, cannons and mechanical horses notwithstanding. The story of a scabbard samurai is the story of an empty man whose soul followed his wife, leaving his vacant body to wander aimlessly looking for an exit. Intentionally flat comedy gives way to an oddly moving finale in which a man finds his redemption and his release in the most unexpected of ways but makes sure to pass that same liberation on to his daughter who has come to realise that her father embodies the true samurai spirit in his righteous perseverance. Laughter and tears, Scabbard Samurai states the case for the interdependence of joy and sorrow, yet even if it makes plain that kindness and understanding are worth more than superficial attempts at humour it also allows that comedy can be the bridge that spans a chasm of despair, even if accidentally.


Currently streaming on Mubi

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (Elehiya Sa Dumalaw Mula Sa Himagsikan, Lav Diaz, 2011)

elegy-to-the-visitor-from-the-revolutionLav Diaz is many things but he’s not especially known for his brevity. Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution (Elehiya Sa Dumalaw Mula Sa Himagsikan) is something of a departure in that regard as it runs a scant eighty minutes but is, nevertheless, imbued with the director’s constant themes of loss, melancholy and despair conveyed across a tripartite structure peopled by three very different yet interconnected sets of characters. To say “only” eighty minutes long, yet Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution first began as a one minute short, intended to form a part of Nikalexis.MOV – an omnibus dedicated to the memory of film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc tragically killed during a home invasion. Diaz’ film, however, outgrew its origins to become a stand alone feature in its own right.

Split into three sections, with the final preceding the second, Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution begins with a long sequence in which a prostitute tries and fails to attract trade while a gang of crooks go about their business in another part of town and a man sadly strums his guitar for an audience of one. The Visitor from the Revolution arrives dressed in the clothes of a hundred years before, wandering through marketplaces and wading into the water, observing what has become of the country she and her compatriots fought so hard to free from the colonial yoke. What she finds there breaks her heart – her people are just as lost and miserable as they were before all of her struggles.

After a while our stories intersect and we discover that our musician is a dream or recurrent vision within the mind of the prostitute. He plays for himself alone but the Visitor finds him, listens to his song and then silences his sound to provide her own. She sings the song of a broken heart, of a figure alone in a field holding a promise waiting to be fulfilled. She knows feelings have changed, that worries run deep and that hope has vanished but, she pleads, hold on to our dream, to your promise, and stay true to your vow. In the latter part of the song, Diaz gives us one of his rare super closeups as the Visitor’s face remains impassive and unmoving while the music plays around her. As the prostitute recounts whilst describing her dream, the Visitor looks out at us with eyes full of sorrow, weighed down by all these centuries of despair. Nothing has changed, nothing will change and she does not know who to blame or what to do except to continue the fight even in the face of this seeming impossibility.

Shot in Diaz’ familiar black and white with low grade cameras, Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution is a weary ballad from one heartbroken revolutionary to another. All here are victims of their circumstances, trapped within an atmosphere of corruption and despair which provides them with no hope of escape. The prostitute cannot ply her trade, the criminals do not get the money from their botched bank job, and the musician plays alone – his song unheard, his pain unshared. The past is ever present, hanging heavily yet invisible over each of them yet the future is equally oblique and untouchable. When you have no more hope, all there is left to do is sing. The struggle goes on, despite all of the setbacks and despair the desire for real change is hard to kill. A lament for the unresolved past, Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution is also a call to arms or a hymn of praise to those who continue to sing their songs to an empty room maintaining the faith that the audience will someday appear.


 

Ashamed (창피해, AKA Life is Peachy, Kim Soo-hyun, 2011)

ashamedOne of the very earliest films to address female same sex love in Korea, Ashamed (yes, really, but not quite – we’ll get to this later, 창피해, Changpihae, retitled Life is Peachy for US release) had a lot riding on it. Perhaps too much, but does at least manage to outline a convincing, refreshingly ordinary failed love romance even if hampered by a heavy handed structuring device and a lack of chemistry between its leading ladies.

Beginning in the film’s “present”, embittered art professor Jung Ji-woo (Kim Sang-hyeon) is auditioning models for an art project, whereupon she bonds with two students currently undergoing some kind of unresolved drama of their own. Hee-jin (Seo Hyun-jin), Jung’s pupil, has roped in her friend also coincidentally named (Youn) Ji-woo (Kim Hyo-jin) who, as she recounts in a lengthy flashback, she met in odd circumstances whilst drinking with layabouts in an alley. Eventually, Youn Ji-woo confessed to her that she’s attracted to people of the same sex, which has left Hee-jin feeling kind of awkward.

Trying to console her student, Jung encourages the younger woman to recount the story of her own great yet failed romance with a pickpocket named, yes, again (Kang) Ji-woo (Kim Kkobbi). Youn had been leading a dull and unfulfilling life as a shopgirl in a department store, baby sitting middle aged housewives. Disillusioned with her disappointing boyfriends, Yoon has entered a dark place where the thing she’s most sorry about in life is that she won’t be able to witness her own suicide. Accordingly she dresses up one of the department store mannequins in her clothes and pushes it off a roof, only it hits a car below and causes an accident.

Not exactly a traditional “meet-cute”, Youn and Kang first encounter each other surrounded by broken glass and are then handcuffed together by the investigating policeman (Choi Min-Yong) who was also just stabbed by one of Kang’s gang members after he spotted her pickpocketing on the metro. The policeman then randomly takes them to his friend’s Chinese restaurant which affords them an opportunity to escape even if they’re still chained at the wrists.

Though this very improbable situation points to a cute and quirky romance, Ashamed takes a non committal stance as regards to tone, throwing in odd details like strange priests living in the woods and Kang’s constantly unreliable self narratives but then retreating to something more straightforwardly melancholy. Love falls slowly as Youn recounts her lack of satisfaction with men only to find herself strangely attracted to her new handcuffs buddy while she, somewhat rudely, has sex with an ex-boyfriend she invited over for help with Youn lying mortified beside them. Suddenly realising why none of her boyfriends ever worked out, Youn feels, understandably, awkward alone with Kang and her ex and but is encouraged by Kang’s tentative but ultimately decisive grasping of her hand during the taxi journey onwards.

Kim’s attempt to avoid prurience whilst also pushing boundaries for sexual content unavoidably feels tame, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the leading actresses and lingering sense of embarrassment in his choice of camera angles. Though painted as a grand and heartbreaking love affair of a lifetime in the opening sequences, Youn and Kang’s romance never takes on the weight of tragedy or moves much beyond the very ordinary tale of two people who couldn’t make it work. This indeed may be the point, but given the melancholy atmosphere of the the three women discussing lost love on a lonely beach, Youn and Kang’s missed opportunity can’t help but feel slighting underwhelming.

Rather than the strongly negative “ashamed” the meaning of the original Korean might be more generously translated as “shy” or “embarrassed”, at any rate the film does not imply any of its characters have reason to feel shame. The title word surfaces a handful of times, most notably when the loosened up professor declares she has no need for it anymore, and in the final showdown with Kang as Youn attempts to challenge her on her problems with intimacy and commitment but fails to push her into a more honest space. Kang’s sense of “shame”, if that would be the right word, seems to be unconnected to sexuality but has deeper roots in the past which she remains unwilling to reveal. This sense of personal inadequacy fuels Kang’s drifting life as she feels the need to move on each time someone gets too close, afraid or perhaps on some level “ashamed” to commit herself fully.

Kim’s multi layered flashback structure mixed with imagined sequences and expressionist scenes inspired by Jung’s artwork proves an unwieldy concept which often detracts more than it gives. With a running time of over two hours and a romance which doesn’t start until many indie films have already ended, Ashamed bites off much more than it can chew but at the same time never fully engages with the most interesting elements of its subject matter. Flawed, if interesting, Ashamed is a bold and worthy effort yet one which falls far short of its target despite the committed performances of its central trio.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Saudade (サウダーヂ, Katsuya Tomita, 2011)

saudadeReworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in September 2012.


Saudade is one of those words that’s so unique to a particular language that it’s extremely difficult to translate into another. The recent Portuguese film, Tabu, is almost a literal expression of “saudade” itself but offers this brief explanation of it – a feeling of deep yearning or nostalgia for something that is past and can never be regained. Each of the residents in the small town of Kofu (which is, in many ways, a character itself) are all yearning for something, whether for a new life, opportunity or just a simple return to the promise of one’s youth. As the town’s prospects continue to decline its residents continue to long for something different – some kind of progress to lift them out of the tedious downward spiral in which they feel themselves to be trapped.

Seiji works in construction, employed on short term projects – when there is work going that is, something that’s becoming increasingly scarce. Married to a beautician whom he’s come to dislike due to her social climbing ambitions and desire to start a family, Seiji fantasises about running away with his Thai mistress and starting a new life with her in her home country. He’s joined by a new friend, Hosaka, who, coincidentally, has just returned from a long period of time living abroad in Thailand but seems to have his own problems and perhaps serious reasons for his flight and subsequent return. The newest member of the construction crew is the reluctant Amano, a leader of right leaning hip hop group, who has come to blame Japan’s immigrant population for his own inability to find work and progress in life.

There are also, of course, the non-Japanese populations including the Brazilians who came to Japan on the promise of wages ten times those they could earn in their home country but have found only poverty and discrimination. Many have decided to return home, others contemplate moving on – perhaps to the Philippines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Some have been in Japan so long that although they are proud of their Brazilian heritage they barely remember their home country and feel they have nowhere to go besides Japan. Desperately trying to walk the line between integration and embracing their own culture, the non-native residents must also devote time to trying to gain acceptance from the local population. That’s not to mention the Thais working as hostesses or dancers or elsewhere in the entertainment industries – accepted but perhaps only in that specific context.

In painting a portrait of his own hometown, director Katsuya Tomita shows a side of Japan that is often absent from Western perceptions – blue collar workers trying to keep pace with the economic downturn while old prejudices rear their ugly heads in defence. The fact that most of the actors are non-professionals and residents of Kofu themselves gives the film a new weight, indeed the two main stars are friends of the director from childhood. Tomita spent a year researching his subject matter and many of these actors are simply repeating their former conversations in a new context for the camera. As the city crumbles and people pull away from each other in their search for something better, the tensions of everyday life grow stronger and threaten to tip over into violent intensity.

The film, however, seeks to remind us that we are all the same. We all have saudades for one thing or another – something we strive to reattain even though we know it’s impossible. The non-native residents yearn for home or for the acceptance they once felt, the Japanese for the prosperous Japan they grew up in and all the possibilities it afforded them in their youth. Seiji must know on one level that his dream of running away to Thailand with his girlfriend is an impossible fantasy, yet he continues to long for it with varying degrees of intensity. Amano’s problems are perhaps more to do with his own circumstances than the political stance he gives them – longing to be ‘someone’, admired, respected and perhaps loved even if the reason for that acclaim is something abhorrent.

At 164 minutes Saudade takes its time and, being an ensemble drama, perhaps lacks enough narrative focus to engage the majority of viewers. However, for those with long attention spans the film excels in character detail and in building a truly authentic atmosphere in the depiction of the decaying Kofu. Not always an easy watch, Saudade is an interesting and unflinching look at an all too often unacknowledged aspect of its home country.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Catcher on the Shore (やぎの冒険, Ryugo Nakamura, 2011)

catcherMaking a coming of age film when you’re only 14 is, in many ways, quite a strange idea but this debut feature from Ryugo Nakamura was indeed directed by a 14 year old boy. Focussing on a protagonist not much younger than himself and set in his native Okinawa, Catcher on the Shore (やぎの冒険, Yagi no Boken) is the familiar tale of a city boy at odds with his rural roots and the somewhat cosy, romantic relationship people from the town often have with matters of the countryside.

Hiroto is a young boy living with his single mother in the city. He’s supposed to spend the winter holidays with his grandparents in his mother’s home town and feels very grown up making the trip all by himself. He’s obviously spent quite a lot of time with his grandparents on earlier occasions and is eager to visit their two “pet” goats who live in “goathouses” (dog kennels) in the garden. However, it’s traditional in Okinawa to make goat soup at times of celebration and Hiroto’s family are raising the goats for their meat, much as they may seem like pets. Unfortunately, Hiroto wasn’t aware of this and is very distressed when he realises what’s happened to one of his “friends”. From this point on he becomes despondent and withdrawn though also committed to the idea of saving the other goat from the fate that befell its mate.

The divides between town and country prove stark here as Hiroto views the goats as domestic pets, never equating the living animal with the life sustaining meat on the dinner table. Though the other children might be able to tuck into goat soup one minute and marvel at the animal’s cuteness the next, Hiroto’s family have not fully considered that a boy from the city will have significantly different ways of looking at things. Seeing as no one thought it necessary to explain something so commonplace to him, Hiroto is shocked and left feeling as if he’s lodging with a gang of heartless murderers. Not only that, he’s now forced to consider his own place in this – his complicity in the death of other creatures as they become the means which sustains his life in the sacrifice of their own.

To begin with it’s all idyllic country scenes of children playing in lakes though perhaps it’s just different kinds of exploitation as Hiroto has also bought a tank along which is soon enough occupied by a shrimp freshly plucked from the river. It might not be a dinner plate, but even Hiroto’s well meaning desire to look after his new shrimp friend is quite a selfish one – especially as he ends up not being the best guardian, abandoning shrimpy to run off after a goat in danger.

This is a place where the old things are still important and there’s a very specific meaning to being a man. Men kill things. Women and cry babies run away. After Hiroto runs from an unexpectedly violent scene, his former friend brands him a “little girl” for lacking the courage to do something as vital as taking the life of an animal. Leaving aside the obvious sexism inherent in both his statement and the rural world (who do you think is going to deal with all those goat carcasses anyway), Hiroto and the local boy challenge each other’s manliness in the traditional way – with a fight! Which neither of them really win, though they do go on to have more of an in depth dialogue whilst marooned for a long dark night of the soul during their very differently motivated goat related quests.

Nakamura’s achievement shows remarkable assuredness for someone his age. That said, this is hardly a back bedroom affair and he’s had quite a lot of help from more experienced professionals to give him a slick, polished finish that eludes many older or even more established indie directors. Any lack of finesse can be excused by his youth but even so Nakamura’s grasp of quite complex themes is especially nuanced from someone who is still technically coming of age himself. Performances are also strong across the board but particularly from the younger members of cast and Nakamura doesn’t even shy away from Okinawa’s chief political concern as a local parliamentary candidate becomes a brief figure of fun whilst calling out for a military base to be built in the area in the hope of creating jobs and boosting the population. Imperfect, yet impressive, Catcher on the Shore is an interesting and undoubtedly well crafted debut which marks the young Nakamura as an intriguing voice that will hopefully have much to offer in years to come.


English subtitled trailer:

Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2011)

coin de rue posterYou know how it is, when you’re from a small town perhaps you feel like a big fish but when you swim up to the great lake that is the city, you suddenly feel very small. Natsume has come to Tokyo from her rural backwater town in Kagoshima to look for her boyfriend, Umi, who’s not been in contact (even with his parents). When she arrives at the patisserie he’d been working at she discovers that he suddenly quit a while ago without telling anyone where he was going. Natsume is distressed and heartbroken but notices that the cafe is currently hiring and so asks if she may take Umi’s place – after all she grew up helping out at her family’s cake shop!

However, as you might expect, even if her cakes are perfectly nice in a “homecooking” sort of way, they won’t cut it at a top cafe like Patisserie Coin de rue. Natsume is not someone who takes criticism well and is hurt that her skills aren’t appreciated but vows to stay and become the best kind of pastry chef she can be.

At heart, Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yougashiten Koandoru) is a fairly generic apprentice story as Natsume starts off as a slightly arrogant country girl with an over inflated opinion of her abilities but gradually develops the humility to help her learn from others around her. Natsume, played by the very talented Yu Aoi, is not an easy woman herself and often rides a rollercoaster of emotions in just a single sentence. She’s loud but passionate and she does work hard even if her over confidence and slapdash approach sometimes cause problems for her fellow workers.

Patisserie Coin de Rue is also refreshing in that it’s one of the few films of this nature that do not attempt to pack in a romantic element. Natsume may have come to Tokyo to look for her boyfriend but no attention is paid to the possibility of winning him back or finding someone else, after calling time on her quest Natsume simply buckles down to learning her craft.

This is doubly true of the film’s secondary plot strand which centres on former international pastry star Tomura (Yosuke Eguchi) who mysteriously abandoned his cooking career eight years ago and now mostly works as a critic with some teaching on the side. He cuts a fairly sad figure as a regular visitor to Patisserie Coin de rue where he’s also an old friend of the owner and Natsume’s mentor, Yuriko. Natsume finally manages to coax him out of his self imposed isolation but the relationship is more paternal than anything else and, thankfully, never attempts to go down any kind of romantic route.

It’s a story that’s familiar enough on its own to have become something of a cliché and Patisserie Coin de rue doesn’t even try to put much of a new spin on it but it does at least carry it off with a decent amount of sophistication. Occasionally the film falls into the televisual but its production values are strong with the tone neatly flitting between mainstream aesthetics and a slightly alienated indie perspective. Of course, being a cake based film there are plenty of enticing shots of the baked goods on offer which do at least create a feast for the eyes.

The saving grace of the film is its leading actors who each turn in naturalistic, nuanced performances even given the lacklustre nature of the script. Yu Aoi carries the film as her surprisingly feisty Natsume dominates each scene she’s in while support is offered by the silent, brooding Yosuke Eguchi and the wise and patient shop owner Yuriko played by Keiko Toda. The film really owes a lot to the talent and commitment of its leading players who help to elevate its rather ordinary nature into something that’s a little less disposable.

That said Patisserie Coin de Rue is a little like a pleasant cafe you find in an unfamiliar area – the coffee’s good and the pastries are pleasant enough, you might drop in again if you’re in this part of town but you probably won’t make a special journey. A little bit formulaic and ultimately too sweet, Patisserie Coin de Rue is a shop bought cake in a boutique box which though enjoyable enough at the time is unlikely to linger long in the memory.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Patisserie Coin de rue includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer)

 

Cheers from Heaven (天国からのエール, Chikato Kumazawa, 2011)

tengoku_teaser_“üeolOkinawa might be a popular tourist destination but behind the beachside bars and fun loving nightlife there’s a thriving community of local people making their everyday lives here. Just like everywhere else, life can be tough when you’re young and the town’s teenagers lament that there’s just not much for them to do. A small group of high schoolers have formed a rock band but they’re quickly kicked out of their practice spot at school after a series of noise complaints from neighbours.

The school kids all buy their lunches from the bento shop down the street run by Hikaru “Nini” Oshiro, his wife and his mother. Whilst there, Aya – the rock band’s female singer, starts eying up a covered courtyard area and remarks that it’s a shame they can’t practice there. Nini overhears and gives them the space but once again the neighbours complain ,so the kids reluctantly decide to give up on the band for now because there aren’t any studio spaces on the island and they wouldn’t have the money to hire somewhere anyway. At this point, Nini makes a surprising decision – digging deep into his family resources, he buys the materials and commits to building a studio space on a patch of disused land next to the bento shop with his own hands.

Based on a true life story, Cheers From Heaven (天国からのエール, Tengoku kara no Yell) is a tribute to Hikaru Nakasone who really did build a studio space for the local kids that turned into something more like a youth centre offering support to all kinds of youngsters so long as they obey the rules. In the film, Nini is a fairly gruff but big hearted man who’s big on discipline and doing the right thing. His rules include being courteous to the other kids, sticking to your allotted time and crucially that your grades don’t suddenly start dropping because you’re hanging out in the studio all the time.

Nini’s wife is, perhaps unsurprisingly, originally horrified by the idea of the studio especially as it will require an additional financial burden for the family, not to mention that Nini failed to run the idea by her before launching headlong into it. However, eventually the entire family comes around and they even start catering for the kids too. When his wife asks him why he’s doing this Nini remarks that in his day people were poor, yes, but they helped and supported each other. Older people taught younger ones how to do things and how to behave but that doesn’t seem to happen now and he doesn’t want his daughter to grow up in a world like that.

The building of the studio becomes a real community project as half the kids from the local area suddenly turn up to help. The project that Nini assumed he’d be finishing with his two hands alone becomes a symbol of pride for the various teenagers who commit their time and hard work into making it happen. They’ve built something together that’s now their collective responsibility and a place where they can go to practice their music or just express themselves creatively.

Nini doesn’t stop there, he wants to help the kids in the band make it big. Convincing a fourth member to join them, taking demos around radio stations, organising live gigs – he’s their unofficial manager. The band’s young struggles hit a chord with Nini because he also had a friend with dreams of becoming a musician that were tragically cut short just as he was finally getting somewhere. It also transpires that Nini came home to Okinawa with his family following an illness which has now returned and this headstrong determination to make a difference is, in part, because he feels as if he’s running out of time.

Despite his failing health, Nini continues to do everything possible to look after the kids from the band even going so far as to discharge himself from hospital to go check on the leaking roof of the studio during a storm only to discover the kids already have it covered. A warm tribute to its real life inspiration, Cheers from Heaven proves far less sentimental than its rather melodramatic title suggests preferring to emphasise its themes of togetherness and legacy which bear out the way in which one committed soul can leave an indelible mark on its community.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 at the ICA London on 6th February 2016.