Scheduling conflicts and sold-out screenings meant that I was only able to see three films at TIFF this year, but it was nice to be back to an in-person festival after two years of mostly-online events. Here are my thoughts on the two Japanese films that I saw:
Visit Me in My Dreams (Hadaka no yume, dir. Sora Hokimoto). A thoughtful meditation on death and memory, Hokimoto’s short (59 minutes) film is set in rural Kochi prefecture and moves between the daily lives of a woman, her son, and other family members. The mother, it seems, has cancer, or perhaps has already died of cancer, and we are seeing her ghost. I enjoyed the film’s quiet depiction of the rhythms of rural life (in a post-screening Q & A, the actors all said that shooting the film in Kochi, a place where time moves more slowly, gave them a deeper sense of the film’s “aura”). Ultimately, though, I found its vagueness frustrating—it’s never clear exactly how some of the characters are related to one another, who is alive or dead, and whether we are seeing a linear narrative or a mix of the present moment and flashbacks. Granted, this vagueness was intentional (according to the actors and director), and films that don’t provide easy answers can certainly be effective. This time, though, the pieces just didn’t quite add up to a meaningful whole.
The Mountain Woman (Yama onna, dir. Takeshi Fukunaga). This one was relentlessly bleak, something I actually found refreshing, given mainstream Japanese cinema’s tendency to force a happy ending or an inspirational message (especially in period dramas). Not The Mountain Woman, which begins its late 18th century story of peasant farmers just trying to survive with the depiction of a newborn being smothered by the father who won’t be able to provide it with food. Anna Yamada plays the resigned daughter of an outcast family, seen as unclean both for her father’s criminal past and her family’s association with the dead (they’re the ones who bury the bodies of the starving villagers). If you’re looking for hope, look elsewhere, but the film is beautifully shot, with an eerie soundtrack and a remote forest setting that feels otherworldly. Director Fukunaga says that he took inspiration both from the collection of stories in Tono monogatari (Tales of Tono) and the shocking amount of victim-blaming he witnessed in Japan during the pandemic, reflected in the cruel treatment of the characters in the film who have the unfortunate task of burying the dead. Yamada is excellent and all of the other performances feel raw and unforced.