Monday, July 11, 2011

Mondocurry NYAFF report vol. 10: Birth, Death, and In Between - HEAVEN'S STORY

Today I watched only one movie at The Japan Society, but it had the weight of three. HEAVEN’S STORY is an epic drama that left me awestruck and emotionally drained at its conclusion. I believe it is this year’s highly impactful Japanese dramatic masterpiece of the festival, like CONFESSIONS and LOVE EXPOSURE of the previous two years. Unfortunately its enormous 4 and a half hour running time and lack of the notable stars or panache of a film like MILOCRORZE had it delegated to one afternoon screening.

With a naturalistic shooting style, which includes occasional shaky camera takes that do not seem out of place, director Takahisa Zeze presents an all encompassing view of life and death captured in the relatively small realm of interconnected individuals that inhabit a small town. What connects them is the occurrence of two murders at around the same time. Although the length of the film might suggest that we see these characters’ experiences over the course of their entire lives, the film does not go much further than a decade or so later than the incident. This is most significant for Sato whose family is murdered when she is still a young girl and is still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy when the story catches up with her as a teenage loner.

The film’s length owes to the very detailed portrayals of characters during key moments in their lives, even before we are made fully aware of their role in the story’s main narrative. While this may seem unessential, it goes a long way in adding depths to the characters that make you care about them a lot. We are also given fascinating views of people in the margins of Japanese society: a bounty hunter, an indie rock guitarist, and a doll maker whose eerily life like creations are later seen used in symbolic bunraku theater performances. Such scenes can be a bit difficult to follow in the first half of the film, where characters’ relations to one another are not yet developed. In the movie’s second act, the tension-filled progression of the film is captivating throughout.

There is actually an intense action story within the sprawling drama, one that discusses the follies of revenge effectively and with far more gravity than this year’s I SAW THE DEVIL or even the sober PUNISHED, also in the NYAFF lineup. The film is not subtle about making the connection between life and death as two connected parts of the same cycle. Along the way, life is portrayed mostly as hardship and pain. Tragic events occur as direct or indirect results of events that took place earlier in the film. There is also a theme, noticeable in many contemporary Japanese films (this year’s ABRAXAS and LAST DAYS OF THE WORLD among them), of intergenerational conflict with the younger characters picking up the pieces of or lashing out after the missteps of adults.

I have not written as much about the settings of films as I did during last year’s NYAFF. HEAVEN’S STORY is noteworthy for its quaint yet engaging small town atmosphere. Particularly breathtaking is a more outlying area where a few rundown residential buildings are all that remain of civilization, the rest overrun by weeds and vines. It is the perfect setting for scenes of mankind giving in to its worst impulses.

The leisurely paced and picturesque ending of the movie reveals Zeze’s view of what follows the end of a person's life. I would not dare to spoil the movie by discussing it, but I will say it manages to be saddening and reassuring at the same time. This is a vision entirely worth taking the time to watch unfold…if there is an opportunity. The most productive course I could imagine is to express your interest in the movie to the good people at Japan Society that run the film programming for Japan Cuts and perhaps it will be screened again at another time in the year.

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