Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Ryutaro Ninomiya, 2017)

Sweating the Small StuffAs portraits of stagnation go, Japanese indie is no stranger though few have found a protagonist as passive as the hero of Ryutaro Ninomiya’s Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Edaha no Koto). Played by the director himself and sharing his name, Ryutaro is a man who barely speaks and has long since given up the illusion that anything that might be said could be of real consequence. Like most of the men in his run down town he has no dreams or ambitions, barely tolerates those who might regard him as a friend, and finds his only refuge in the pages of a book. A chance phone call produces a brief change in his routine but perhaps not enough to shake him from his committed course of listlessness.

At 27, Ryutaro lives alone in a modest, messy apartment filled with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and piles of books. He has a dead end job at a moribund garage and spends his breaks avoiding his co-workers whom he seems to find annoying. Receiving a phone call from a childhood friend, Ryutaro informs his drunken boss that he needs to leave early before going home to eat noodles, read, and wait to be picked up. His friend, Yusuke, takes him to see his mother, Ryuko, who has been ill with hepatitis C for some years during which time Ryutaro has avoided seeing her despite having been close to her following the death of his own mother when he was just a child.

Ryutaro is a sullen sort of man, almost vibrating with an internalised rage which is only calmed at home with his books. Conversations with his friend Yusuke and later with Ryuko reveal that Ryutaro once had literary aspirations himself, even placing well in competitions, but has more or less given up writing. Yusuke also wanted to be an artist but has abandoned his dreams for a regular salaryman life, as has Yusuke’s brother Satoshi who used to bleach his hair and play in a band. Ryutaro’s boss seems to be among the few who has yet to definitively give up, planning to leave the garage to take over an interiors company owned by a friend of his mother’s who has no heirs to inherit it. Ryutaro’s boss has mentioned similar schemes before and they’ve always fallen through, but he thinks this time will be different. Ryutaro, in contrast, seems to have abandoned any idea of forward motion, refusing to pursue his literary goals, a more stable career, or relationships with friends and lovers in favour of whiling the time away inconsequentially.

Having lost his mother at a young age and then watched his step-mother battle a serious illness which she seems to have recovered from, Ryutaro perhaps has reasons to be wary of forming deep attachments. Only once does his stony facade crack, during a private conversation with Ryuko in which he tells her that sometimes he cheers himself up by remembering that there must be people in a much worse place than he is. Yet Ryutaro is not an unkind man, much of the little he does say is offered quietly in kindness such as his defence of Ryuko’s sometimes absent minded husband, but what he can’t stand is babble and insincerity. Pushed into an unwanted, vacuous conversation with a potential girlfriend he quips that he likes his cheap hairdressers because they get it done without talking before becoming overwhelmed and cruelly laying into the chatty woman with a lengthy rant about the utter pointlessness of her one-sided loquacity. Failing to realise the depth to which he’s hurt her, Ryutaro goes back to the bar where she works to try and see her again only to be rebuffed.

A similar event occurs in another bar when his boss makes a joke about his seeming blankness. Twice Ryutaro gets himself into fights and twice he refuses to defend himself, remaining passive as blows rain down on him. Trying to shut everything out, Ryutaro drinks heavily, declines invitations, and stays at home alone but Ryuko’s illness has forced him to re-emerge, to a degree at least, into the world. Caught in a state of permanent anxiety, Ryutaro finds himself paying repeated visits to Ryuko before finally attempting to talk with his equally detached father who appears to suffer from many of the same problems as Ryutaro himself.

Inspired by true events, Sweating the Small Stuff is both a picture and mild rebuke of aimless youth and of a generation which has collectively decided that everything is meaningless and devoid of purpose. In an odd way, Ryutaro, in his inertia, may be the last man standing, still resentfully clinging on to an idea of real meaning which is defined by its own absence. Ryutaro’s tragedy is that he wants more out of life than there perhaps is to be found and remains frustrated among all those content to waste their time in idle pursuits or surrender themselves to a life of respectable drudgery and ordinary happiness but there are perhaps brief flickers of connection to found even within his ever more disconnected world.

Currently available to stream via Festival Scope as part of their Locarno Film Festival selection.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles for captions)

The First Lap, Sweating the Small Stuff Screen at Locarno 2017

Sweating the Small StuffNow in its 70th year, the Locarno Film Festival returns with another celebration of auteurist cinema from 2nd to 12th August, 2017. As usual there are a number of arthouse films from East Asia included in the programme hailing from China, Japan, Korea, and Myanmar.

dragon fly eyes stillVisual artist Xu Bing’s first debut feature Dragonfly Eyes is entirely composed of images taken from China’s many CCTV surveillance cameras as they capture the lives of two young people – Qu Ting, a young woman training to become a buddhist nun who returns to the secular world and takes a job at a dairy farm, and Ke Fan a young man who falls in love with her but finds himself sent to jail in the quest to win her heart. On his release he searches for her desperately only to discover she has reinvented herself as an online celebrity.

mrs fang stillWang Bing’s documentary Mrs. Fang tells the story of an elderly woman suffering with Alzheimer’s who is sent back to her rural village from the nursing home in which she had been living after it is decided they can offer no further treatment.

first lap stillIn Kim Dae-hwan’s The First Lap Su-hyeon and Ji-young have been living together for the last six years but the possibility of an unexpected pregnancy forces the pair to reassess their relationships with their old families before starting a new one.

sweating small stuff still 2Ryutaro Ninomiya directs himself in Sweating the Small Stuff as he plays a 27 year old mechanic who decides to pay a visit to the terminally ill mother of a friend he has been avoiding seeing despite knowing of her illness.

blood amber stillThe first feature documentary from Lee Yong Chao, Blood Amber takes a look at a Burmese forest controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in which the inhabitants eke out a living mining hoping to find a way out whilst also living in fear of military action.

There are also two short films from East Asia:

crossing river stillHan Yumeng’s Crossing River follows a group Chinese construction workers

signature stillKei Chikaura’s Signature centres on a young Chinese man lost in the middle of Shibuya.

The 70th Locarno Film Festival runs from 2nd – 10th August, 2017. You can find full details for all films as well as the complete lineup on the official festival website, and you can keep up with all the latest developments via the Festival’s Facebook Page, Twitter account, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat.