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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Love and loss in old Japan

Shara Soju

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Naomi Kawase
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Naomi Kawase has acquired an international critical following for films that are autobiographical (some literally, some spiritually) and stylistically distinctive, including "Moe no Suzaku" (international title "Suzaku"), a study of family disintegration that won the Camera d'Or prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

News photo
Yuka Hyodo and Kohei Fukunaga in "Shara Soju"

Born and raised in Nara, the cultural heartland of Japan, Kawase has quietly, stubbornly gone her own way. Where many of her documentary-making seniors invested their talents and energies in leftist causes, she has made films about her family and region in which politics is conspicuous by its absence. Where many of her directorial contemporaries have injected pop-culture references and digital editing tricks into their films, she has gone in an opposite, technically minimalist direction, while rejecting the media-saturated, vulgarly Westernized side of Japanese life.

Though her stories may unfold in present-day Japan, her people never set foot in a convenience store or even punch buttons on a keitai. Instead, they adhere to traditional ways of living and working, while their concerns would have been familiar to Yasujiro Ozu or Mikio Naruse: relations between parents and children, men and women. But more than most humanist filmmakers of earlier generations, Kawase is conscious of the natural world. In her films the forests, fields and gardens of Nara are not just backdrops, but living, breathing presences. In her ideal Japan, people live in peaceful harmony with their natural surroundings, but that ideal, she reminds us, is under constant attack from, not only impersonal outside forces, but the wayward urgings of the heart.

In "Shara Soju" (international title "Shara"), which screened in competition at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Kawase returns to the themes of "Moe no Suzaku" -- the pain of loss and the possibility of love. Once again she strips her story to its narrative essentials, while using long point-of-view shots to put the audience into her characters' world. A lot of minimalist filmmakers strive for the essential, but serve up ennui. Kawase may wander at length in the greenery, but compensates with moments that powerfully, if simply, deliver her message of renewal and hope. "Shara Soju" is not so much a feel-good movie as a vitalizing feel-real experience.

It begins with two boys -- twin brothers -- chasing each other through the summer streets of an old Nara neighborhood. Then one, Kei, turns a corner -- and is never seen again, despite a frantic search by his parents and neighbors. The other brother, Shun, is devastated by this loss.

Five years later, now 17, he is still grieving. As a project for his high school art club, Shun (Kohei Fukunaga) paints a life-size portrait of Kei; not the real-life boy, but the youth of his imagination -- or rather the one he sees in the mirror.

His confidante is Yu (Yuka Hyodo), a classmate who lives in his neighborhood and has been his friend since childhood. Shun has feelings for her that go beyond friendship, but he can't breath a word about them. Yu, on the other hand, knows what he wants -- and is willing to reciprocate.

Meanwhile, Shun's outgoing, if indolent, father (Katsuhisa Namase), is helping to organize the Basara Festival, an annual summer event, while his soft-spoken but hard-working mother (Naomi Kawase) is pregnant with her third child.

Shun remains obsessed with the past, but through his father's expansive optimism, his mother's quiet strength and Yu's youthful vitality (as well as sexuality), he comes to see that change has another side -- bringing not just death and defeat, but new life and hope.

Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki, who has also worked on the films of Hidekazu Kore'eda ("Wonderful Life," "Distance"), brings a hazy, summery beauty to this story, while locating it precisely within its Nara milieu. Filmed in only 12 days, "Shara Soju" may occasionally devolve into patchy improvisation, but Yamazaki's camerawork smoothes the rough edges, while expressing Kawase's sensibility.

Meanwhile, Kawase impresses in the role of the mother. Directors who appear in their own works tend to film themselves in a flattering light -- witness the cool-dude heroes of Takeshi Kitano or the aging Lotharios of Woody Allen -- but Kawase goes in the other direction, toward the permanently exhausted look of late pregnancy.

Also, watching her character in the throes of labor, I wondered, as I never had about similar scenes directed by men, whether it might not be the real thing. Kawase may have been forced into this role (the professional actress she had cast as the mother dropped out before the start of shooting), but she creates an extraordinary moment -- and a rare identification between a director and her vision.

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