The 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival wrapped on November 3rd. Hirobumi Watanabe, a festival favorite who with his brother Yuji presented the strangely hypnotic Seven Days at last year’s festival, won the Grand Prix for Poolside Man, another black and white story of life in a distant Tokyo suburb. A full list of winners can be found here.
Daguerrotype (Le secret de la chambre noire), Kiyoshi Kurosawa. For Kurosawa’s first foreign language film, I wondered if the director’s brand of ghost story, which usually draws heavily from the peculiarities of Japanese social life, would translate to the French screen. It does, actually. Not much happens that’s new, but it is, as one character says near the end of the film, “a lovely trip.” As always, the visuals are stunning, with creatively framed shots that frequently make you wonder exactly where you’re supposed to be looking. This time around the story concerns a photographer (Olivier Gourmet) who only shoots daguerrotypes, forcing his subjects to stand still for long periods of time with the help of a lethal-looking device. His young apprentice (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet) soon falls in love with the photographer’s mysterious daughter (Constance Rousseau), who’s also his main model and muse. But of course something’s not quite right in the house. Is the photographer’s dead wife haunting it? Is everyone slowly going insane from mercury poisoning? Can anything we see be trusted? As usual with Kurosawa, if you’re looking for definitive answers, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for a quiet, beautifully filmed meditation on artistic obsession and the thin line between dreams and reality, though, this will do the trick.
Snow Woman (Yuki onna), Kiki Sugino. Kiki Sugino is one of a very small number of female producers working in Japanese film, and the films she’s produced with directors like Koji Fukada and Takuya Misawa have been consistently excellent. Thus I was looking forward to seeing her second directorial effort (her first, Kyoto Elegy [Manga niku to boku], was released in 2014). Sadly, Snow Woman was a disappointment. The story (of a mysterious woman in white who freezes unwary travelers with her breath and then marries a young man who doesn’t know her true identity) is so well-known that it would be a challenge for anyone to bring something new to it. There’s also the fact that it’s essentially a five-minute story, something Masaki Kobayashi seemed to understand when he filmed it, beautifully, as one of several ghostly short films in his 1965 collection Kwaidan. As Sugino has filmed it, at least, Snow Woman doesn’t translate well to ninety minutes. The only new detail is a strange juxtaposition of time periods–the film seems to begin in the pre-modern era, with characters wearing woven sandals and bamboo raincoats, but then cuts to a scene with a character in this costume standing beside another in a suit. Initially I wondered if this was a “period-film-within-a-modern-film” setup, but no–scenes with the snow woman and her family seem to take place just before electric lights became common (there’s a subplot about an electrical company), while scenes between other characters seem to take place in the 1950s or 1960s. The reasoning is never explained, and ultimately it’s not enough of a shift to keep the film interesting.
Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu), Kōji Fukada. Harmonium, which won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is basically a re-imagining of Fukada’s 2010 film Hospitalite (Kantai), a very odd comedy-drama about a mysterious man from the past (Kanji Furutachi) who disrupts the quiet lives of a husband and wife (Kenji Yamauchi and Kiki Sugino) in a Tokyo suburb. In an interesting casting choice, this time around it’s Furutachi who plays the husband, while the always wonderful Tadanobu Asano takes on the role of the mystery man. But Hospitalite mostly kept things light. Harmonium is very, very dark. It’s also gripping from start to finish. Asano has that rare ability to be equal parts charming and terrifying, Furutachi speaks volumes with a single word, and Mariko Tsutsui displays amazing range in her transition from a cheerful, capable homemaker to a haunted figure barely holding herself together. Like a lot of Fukada’s films, Harmonium is about the lies we tell ourselves and each other, and about the fragile foundation on which seemingly solid lives are built. Where Hospitalite saw that reality as an opportunity for offbeat comedy, though, Harmonium sees it as a chance to twist the knife. And twist it again.