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Friday, Aug. 11, 2006

Teen angst but at a sedate pace

In the late 1990s, after Japanese and other Asian films began to get foreign festival invitations by the bushel, I noticed that many of their directors, the younger ones especially, followed a certain formula derived from the work of Hou Hsiao Hsien, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson and other masters of transcendental cinema. In other words, directors whose films transcend life's mundanities to illuminate its core truths.

Mizu no Hana Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Saki Terashima in "Mizu no Hana" (c) PFF PARTNERS 2005

Director: Yusuke Kinoshita
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Aug. 11, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Speaking generally, the transcendental style prefers long cuts to short ones and focuses on the hero's innermost being rather than a conventional three-act story. Reduced to formula, however -- shoot one scene in one cut, minimize camera movement, avoid closeups, restrain emotions, excise plot -- this style can be distancing, alienating, coma-inducing.

The common complaint against transcendentalists is slowness, with comparisons made to paint drying, grass growing, the seasons changing, etc. But in the best of their films, patience is rewarded with the sort of epiphanies that all of Hollywood's explosions can't match. Even Buddha didn't achieve satori in a day, right?

"Mizu no Hana," the first feature by 24-year-old director Yusuke Kinoshita, falls somewhere midway on the transcendental ecstasy/agony spectrum. Which may sound harsh, but isn't really: If Ozu and company are the pinnacle, most filmmakers are deep in the foothills.

Kinoshita, who made his film with money from the Pia Film Festival scholarship program and screened it in the 2006 Berlin Film Festival's Kinderfilmfest section, can deliver the occasional epiphany, but, in trying too hard to be Ozu-esque (or simply transcendental), he often looks stiff and overly self conscious. At his age, Ozu was making slapstick comedies, not deep-think statements about the human condition. The film's best moments are when the characters are not posed like existentially isolated shop mannequins, but discovered with their defenses down -- or their anger and resentment momentarily quelled.

The story, written by Kinoshita, sounds like the stuff of bad TV melodrama. Junior high schooler Minako (Saki Terashima) is alone living with her salaryman father (Tetsushi Tanaka) when she hears, from a male classmate, that her mother (Asuka Kurosawa) has returned to town, years after leaving Mi-nako and her father to live with another man. Minako has never gotten over her feelings of abandonment and rage.

Now the lover is gone, but Mom has another daughter, 6-year-old Yu (Himawari Ono). To pay the rent on her shabby apartment, she works as a bar hostess, leaving Yu alone, putting on mommy's lipstick and playing with her high heels. The kid, in other words, is growing up too fast -- and isn't sure she likes it.

Minako finds the apartment and later befriends Yu at a game center. She persuades the girl to go with her to her dead grandparents' empty house in the Tohoku region and, after Minako dresses up like an adult to buy the tickets, they board a night bus.

Why run away? Minako is also upset with Dad -- he came home drunk one night and made a fumbling attempt to molest her. She also wants to make her mother and Yu suffer, though she has nothing resembling a plan.

Here, in TV drama land, is where Mom and Dad would go into hysterics, while Minako befriends adorable little Yu. The climax: a big, teary, family reunion, with all forgiven.

In "Mizu no Hana," however, nearly everyone keeps a firm lid on their emotions, until they burst uncontrollably through the surface. (Yu is one exception, though she is unusually tamped down for a 6-year-old.) Also, though Mi-nako does change -- particularly in realizing that she and Yu are sisters in pain as well as blood -- she cannot easily forgive. That feels right, even though it goes against the genre grain, as well as Mi-nako's growing affection for Yu.

Finally, Kinoshita supplies a catharsis, but it is wordless and ambiguous, if powerful, summing up in a single image all Minako has experienced and felt. In fact, he keeps dialogue to a minimum throughout the film, seldom venturing beyond what is needed to move the story along. (Ozu's characters were chatterboxes by comparison.)

The down side: For long stretches, we have little idea how Minako is really feeling beyond a closed-off look, shot from the middle distance, that could be a mask for anything from normal teenage sullenness to murderous intent.

The up side: Kinoshita also creates moments, such as the two girls playing with a doll house in the attic or Yu's balletic dance in the rain, that are tender and poignant without jerking a single tear. All in all, he has learned from his masters well. Now, like his heroine, he has to strike out on his own.

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