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Posts Tagged ‘Hirokazu Kore-eda’

How’s about this for a subtle way of sliding a blatant plug into one of these pieces: I have a piece in a collection of essays coming out later this year, concerning a fairly-well-known fictional character whose generally benevolent nature rapidly vanishes whenever he experiences a moment of perfect happiness. The editor of the collection asked me to provide a one-line biography of myself, and it seemed natural to choose a moment of perfect happiness of my own – tongue slipping slightly into my cheek, naturally. I went for eating a $60 cheeseburger high in the sky over Tokyo, in the 50th-floor hotel bar where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sort-of hooked-up in Lost in Translation. (I refused to believe you could possibly justify charging $60 for a cheeseburger, no matter how nice the scenery was. Then I ate a $60 cheeseburger, and revised my opinion.)

It’s one of those questions which you can take as seriously as you want to, I suppose, and it is at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film After Life (the Japanese connection is mostly coincidental). This is one of Kore-eda’s earlier films, released in 1998, and one presumes it (along with a bunch of other Kore-eda films) is enjoying a revival off the back of the success of Shoplifters last year. I have to confess I had never heard of it until only a few days ago; this is not the kind of Japanese movie which generally lands an international distribution deal.

As the film opens, we are in what looks like an abandoned or semi-derelict school or hospital; two co-workers are casually making their way into the office, gossiping about people they have met while doing their jobs. It is Monday morning and the departmental supervisor thanks his team for their efforts, but observes they have a large number of clients coming in this week who will all need to processed as smoothly as possibly. So far the general atmosphere has been of a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary, but as the team’s clients begin to arrive, walking into the reception area out of a misty white void, we perhaps begin to discern that not all is quite as it seems. The clients are a disparate bunch, perhaps skewing more towards the older kind of person, and the reason for this is revealed as they are taken into private meeting rooms for their initial interviews with the processing team.

All the clients are people who have recently died, and the place where they are (it is never named) is basically the ante-room to the next life. The new arrivals are officially informed of their change in status, and the purpose of the place is explained: the newcomers have three days to decide upon which of their memories is most important to them. This memory will then be recreated and filmed by the staff of the facility. At the end of the week, everyone will watch the completed films of their chosen memories, at which point they will pass on into eternity, taking only that single memory with them.

Most of the early part of the film concerns the various clients discussing their lives and the things they remember most strongly. One of them isn’t sure he has any memories he really wants to take with him; another, a slightly flaky young man, refuses to choose, despite the fact he will not be able to move on until he does. These two characters are scripted, but even as you’re watching the film it’s clear that some of these scenes are real people honestly talking about their lives (not actual dead people, obviously, but the fantastical context in which they are speaking does lend their stories a significance and gravity they might not otherwise possess).

As the film progresses, though, it becomes clear that this is more than just an inventively-disguised talking-heads documentary. The people working here have their own stories, too: they are not angels or spirits or supernatural beings, but people who have chosen not to move on. Some of them are better at their jobs than others, and they have their own relationships. The film focuses most on what seems like a very low-key romance between two of them, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda). The film is as subtle as ever in the way it raises ideas without beating the viewer about the head with them – just why are they still here? Is it even possible for two people in such a strange state of metaphysical hiatus to have a meaningful connection of this kind? When the life-story of one of the new clients proves to have a personal resonance for Takashi, it begins to look very much like they can.

When the film first made clear the rules of Kore-eda’s afterlife – specifically the part about only being able to take one memory with you, stuck in a moment you can’t get out of (to quote U2) – I have to confess it didn’t sound to me like a very good deal; what kind of life can be summarised by only a single moment or memory? But perhaps this is not the point. Quite what that point would otherwise be, I’m not sure, although the film does suggest that most people just choose moments of special happiness for them. Perhaps the implication is that people get the afterlife that they choose for themselves, whether that be one of bliss or self-flagellating guilt and remorse. It’s a slightly worrying idea and one which feels disturbingly plausible.

In all other respects, Kore-eda’s clearing house for the great beyond is a very appealing concept. I couldn’t help thinking of the grand conception of heaven in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, with its enormous escalators, great clocks, pristine uniforms and so on; Kore-eda’s alternative feels rather like a somewhat under-funded branch of the social services – the roofs leak, the place clearly hasn’t been decorated in ages, and there’s a slightly shambolic quality to everything from the film reconstructions themselves to the brass band that accompanies the clients to the climactic screening. I found it undeniably charming, and very much of a piece with the rest of the film, which opts for low-key, understated naturalism throughout. You can imagine the Hollywood remake of After Life: it would be all soaring string sections and luminous CGI dissolves, with Important Life Lessons being crammed down the audience’s throat; none of that is here and it is what gives the film its enormous, gentle charm.

The original title of After Life was Wandafuru Raifu, which translates into English as Wonderful Life (Japanese is sometimes less challenging as a language than people think). However, this isn’t obviously an update or riff on Frank Capra’s much-loved seasonal favourite; it has none of that film’s darkness, nor its implicit imprecation that we should take the time to be grateful for what we’ve got. This is a film about quiet reflection and acceptance, almost wholly non-judgmental and enormously humane and warm. It is genuinely a bit of a treasure.

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It is with a definite sense of regret that I have to report that the Phoenix in Jericho appears to have abandoned its nascent tradition of showing a classic British fantasy-horror movie for Christmas in its Vintage Classics strand. After The Blood on Satan’s Claw two years ago, and The Company of Wolves last December, I was looking forward to seeing what the programmers might come up with this festive season – a welcome revival of Hellraiser II, perhaps? Alas no: more conventional judgement seems to have prevailed and the cinema is showing its usual mixture of serious mainstream fare, cool new documentaries, and the occasional foreign-language arthouse darling.

Falling smack into the latter category is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (J-title: Manbiki Kazoku, literally Shoplifting Family), which won the Olympic medal as far as arthouse darlings are concerned by scooping the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year. Having seen the film, I can see why: in addition to simply being very good (which is not the only prerequisite for a Cannes win, of course), it shows a distinct artistic sensibility as well as having a bit of a social conscience. (You don’t have to be an arthouse film in order to win at Cannes, of course: even a cursory glance at the list of past victors turns up a few surprises.)

At first glance, Shoplifters is a family saga of the type which Japanese directors like Yasujiro Ozu have been renowned for making for many decades. The main point of difference is that – as the title suggests – Shoplifters concerns people from the lowest levels of society. If the film had been entitled Haijshirazu No (Shameless), that might have been a better point of reference for UK viewers, but despite the superficial resemblance, Kore-eda is ultimately making something much more serious than that.

As the film opens we meet a man, Osamu (Lily Franky), and a boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), who are out paying a visit to the local shops. They are not actually shopping, of course, but making ends meet by nicking stuff, something which they are clearly highly skilled at. (It’s not really stealing, according to Osamu, if nobody’s actually bought it yet.) It all gets taken back to a small, decrepit, and chaotic home which they share with Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and the grandma of their little family (the veteran actor Kirin Kiki, in her final role). There’s also another young woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) present, whose exact relationship to the rest of them is deliberately kept rather vague to begin with. Officially, Osamu is a day labourer on a construction site, and Nobuyo works in a laundry, but really they live off a combination of Granny’s pension and the proceeds of the rest of the family’s criminal endeavours. (Aki has a job as a sex worker but is excused having to contribute to the family budget, on Granny’s insistence.)

The starting point for the story comes when Osamu and Shota meet a young girl while coming home from one of their thieving excursions. She says her name is Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) and she shows every sign of being maltreated by her uncaring parents. Almost by accident, Osamu and the clan find themselves broadening their criminal palette to include a sort of unpremeditated benevolent child abduction, as they end up taking Yuri into their home and making her part of the family – Shota is a little resentful of the new arrival at first, but is told she is his new little sister.

Life goes on in its cheerful way for the family, and the first two thirds or so of the film depicts this. I expect that on paper it all sounds potentially quite bleak and depressing, but what’s notable about it is the warmth of it, the compassion Kore-eda shows towards even the most dubious of his characters, and its sheer non-judgemental nature. The family look out for each other, genuinely seem to care about Yuri and her welfare, and Osamu and Nobuyo at least are surprisingly self-aware about just what kind of people they are. At least they know they are bad guys – or completely amoral – even if they don’t seem to show much motivation to actually change their ways.

The final part of the film, however, is the one which reveals the reality and the truths which underlie the family’s situation (which, for obvious reasons, I don’t want to go into much detail about here). It becomes clear that this film isn’t just about a family, but about the idea of family and the grip it can exert on people. At one point in the film, Nobuyo reassures Yuri that the sign that someone loves you is that they hug you, rather than hit you, and there is no shortage of care and affection between the different characters. And yet it becomes clear that they are also capable of shocking, perhaps even appalling acts in order to preserve the group. One of the questions raised by the film is whether it is selfish to be so compelled to have other people around you.

The film never resolves this central ambiguity – the characters remain strangely endearing, even when the true extent of their moral bankruptcy is revealed – and there are some extremely powerful, poignant scenes as the film draws to a close. Most of the storytelling is marvellously subtle and understated, with superb performances from the actors: as Osamu, Franky is unimposing and rather feckless, in many ways as much of a child as Shota, but for all of his wheedling shiftiness it is clear he deeply wants to be a proper father. Ando’s performance makes it clear that Nobuyo is the brains and quite probably the heart of the clan, the one holding it all together. There are scenes of genuine warmth and intimacy between them all – a trip to the beach together, the group gathering to watch fireworks from their porch – and these are at the heart of the film, as much as any of the scenes which make for somewhat more harrowing viewing.

Shoplifters is set in urban Japan but I think it has a rather universal quality – I imagine there are families like this scraping along in the wainscots of most modern societies, and the desire to be part of a family is again something that most people can relate to. On the other hand, this is not a film exactly bursting with mainstream audience appeal, in the UK at least – it’s a fairly lengthy foreign-language drama which has the look of a social issue film about it. But it’s a much more textured, thoughtful, and likeable film than that. Well worth watching if you’re in the mood for something with a bit of depth.

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