The lives of a series of dejected souls in a moribund quarry town intersect in unexpected ways in a poetical drama from Juichiro Yamasaki, Yamabuki (やまぶき). The film takes it name from a colourful mountain flower which as someone later comments grows in the shade where no one can see, much like the sullen teenage girl whose mother named her after it because as she says “sunflowers face the sun but you don’t have to”. A tale of finding a place to root oneself in a rocky landscape the film has an understandably melancholy atmosphere but nevertheless eventually finds hope in perseverance or as one of the heroes finally sighs, “ask and ye shall receive”.
“This is my family” former Korean equestrian Chang-su (Kang Yoon-soo) beams on visiting a local ranch where his girlfriend’s daughter Uzuki is learning to ride. Chang-su explains that he was forced to give up horse riding after his father’s business went bust, implying at least that he’s from a formerly wealthy family in Korea with whom he seems to have few emotional ties. We see him send money abroad which seems to be intended to pay off loan sharks, presumably his father’s debts unwisely incurred by his failing business and perhaps the reason why Chang-su has come to Japan to work a manual job in a quarry. Most of the other workers are also economic migrants, many of them from the same area and conversing with each other in their own shared language though Chang-su seems to be the only Korean. After receiving the news that he’s to be made a regular employee rather than a casual worker, he starts to think that his life is back on track allowing him to once again ride a horse.
But his hopes are suddenly dashed when his car is hit by falling rocks dislodged by police detective Hayakawa (Yota Kawase) trying to uproot a yamabuki flower to take home with him while his teenage daughter, Yamabuki (Kirara Iori), rolls her eyes and storms off. Reeling from the death of her war reporter mother in a Middle Eastern combat zone, Yamabuki is at odds with her father and searching for her own identity. She has begun hanging out with a group of protestors who stand silently at the roadside with prominent signage though their protests seem to take on many forms with no particular focus. One moment it’s the consumption tax and the next American presence in Okinawa or racism in contemporary Japan. This last one is met with a counter protest by a man shouting at them to go back where they came from, echoing the kind of othering and displacement felt by Chang-su who is let go from the quarry after the accident.
Just as Chang-su tries to anchor himself with his new family, Hayakawa tries to remake his in the absence of his wife while carrying on a kind of relationship with a Chinese sex worker equally displaced by the modern society and looking for a place to belong. As she points out, her mother came to Japan because at that time it looked like the future, but like the quarry town it now seems like the past. Her mother returned to the economic powerhouse of Shenzhen and has apparently become wealthy, though her half-Japanese daughter struggles to find a place for herself. As Chang-su reveals, “yamabuki” was also the name given to gold coins offered as bribes in the feudal era, lamenting the money-oriented nature of the contemporary society just as Yamabuki herself concludes that she wants her life to mean something and to feel present in every second of her existence. Her father had objected to the protests, but eventually tells her that she should be preparing for her independence and learning to be accountable to herself for her actions. She must have the courage of her convictions, as he lays out in a scene shot in the manner of a political rally and echoing Soviet realist cinema, so she can’t regret it later even if she one day changes her mind.
They are all, in their ways, like the yamabuki rooting themselves in rocky ground and growing in the shade each discovering something new that allows them to continue despite the continual disappointment of their lives. Shot in a grainy 4:3 16mm, the film emphasises the aura of impossibility that enshrouds the town as if it were somehow trapped in the past, but equally lends it a kind of elegiac quality peppered with the colourful yellow of the yamabuki flowers which suggest that it is possible to blossom even under the constant gloom of a continually uncertain existence.
Yamabuki screens at New York’s IFC Center on Feb. 10 & 11 as part of ACA Cinema Project’s New Films From Japan. Director Juichiro Yamasaki will be present at each screening for a Q&A.
Original trailer (English subtitles)