Shara (2003)

30 01 2008

I was trying to think up a shortlist of female directors from Japan not too long ago and outside of Kinuyo Tanaka, who of course is famous for other things, I could only think of Naomi Kawase. Unfortunately, she got little attention when she won the Grand Prix at Cannes for The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) last year. She’s written two novels and directed ten films (her latest is in post-production) but only now, is she getting attention in the west. I’ve felt like I’ve written “only now getting attention in the west” about one hundred times in this blog already. America is just so far behind in Asian cinema. Enough whining, Shara (Sharasojyu) definitely represents the work of a promising talent.

The films opens with a prolonged and rather awkward sequence of Shun and his brother running through alleyways. For better or worse, Kawase’s shakycam tracks the traveling of characters in a way that is as immediately striking as the steadicam tracking shots in Alan Clarke’s films. Shun’s brother disappears and this setups the rest of the film, which takes place seven years after and reflects the family’s inability to move on from their trauma. Shun is now seventeen, exteremly alienated, and falling for Yu. Their respective families have much bottled in leading up to the “Shara festival.”

I always see it as being short-sighted when saying any films is like “so and so but with something else” but this just be an Ozu film with the unfortunately overused shakycam. The first is particularly Ozu-esque, as Kawase simply observes the everyday rituals of the film’s characters. The similarities in living conditions certainly doesn’t hurt this comparison, either. Seeing as how this is a delicate film, it takes place away from the bright lights and modernization of the big city. I’m also reminded of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films from the 80s but placing Kawase on the same plateau as my two very favorite directors is a bit premature.

Even though this is a remarkably observant and neutral slice-of-life, the otherwise sparse narrative is plagued by a very silly exposition that ends up taking fifteen minutes of screen time. The film is about Shun, his family, Yu and her step-mom and that’s why the bit about the disappearing brother is unnecessary and frankly, a little silly. It’s bad enough that Shun never really “looks” for his brother but it’s even worse that Kawase felt such an explanation was needed to order to understand the tension of the family. It would be much more interesting, at least to me, had none of that information been given and the audience would be left to study the nuance of the present episodes.

Mrs. Kawase’s aesthetic deserves a word or two, as well. As I said, this is a very low-key drama, the type that I watch at an almost obsessive level. This is one of the first that seems to be keen on using the shakycam handheld look. Certainly the more kinetic approach can strike a chord with me (WKW, Fruit Chan, Cassavetes, and hundreds more) but it tends to be used for much more consequential films. The clash of somber pacing and anti-attention span camera work is very awkward at times, particularly the far too long opening sequence. This leads me to my final very small compliant and that’s that Kawase should have spent a little more time in the editing room. The opening sequence which is basically ten minutes of slow-motion footage of two kids running in a street feels sort of cool at first but goes on for an uncomfortable length of time. The opening festival sequence is a blast in face from the restrained mood the film had built itself upon and yet, the festival sequence ends up feeling even more mundane if only for the fact that it goes on way too long.

Even though I am vocal about my very small problems with the film, it is still pretty much a masterpiece. It’s refreshing to see that not everyone follows the long-held traditions/beliefs about minimalistic films in Asia. This is more akin to the social dramas coming out of South America, the “gluesniffing” genre as I like to call it, but with more focus on characters and their relationships. The people who would like Shara know who they are, and they shouldn’t waste anymore time not seeing it.

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9 responses

30 01 2008
JimmyChanga

I love Ozu and Hou but I didn’t like Shara at all. The story was confusing and the shakycam made me angry. Why did the dad wrestle with the son in that one scene (your second screen capture)?? This movie baffled me and sometimes I like being baffled, but not in this case. I just didn’t get it. I turned it off in the middle.

30 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

I personally have virtually no nits to pick with this film. She may be unknown in the English-speaking world — but not in continental Europe. Two of her films are out on DVD in France — and several of her documentaries have been shown on Arte.

The film is tied into a real (grass-roots) festival held in Nara — and Kawase’s film helped make this festival more likely to become a long-time tradition there (it was still relatively new when she began making her film).

Her first feature film (Suzaku) is available as a lovely French-subbed DVD — which totally supersedes the ancient HK VCD that introduced me to Kawase’s work. Unfortunately, her second feature film (Hotaru) has never been widely shown because it got snared in the bankruptcy of its production company. I keep hoping for at least a Japanese DVD of this someday.

30 01 2008
Jake Savage

Jimmy, the plot may have been confusing, because there wasn’t one. Maybe you were trying to read into things too much. It’s the same type of restrained drama that many of my favorite Asian directors are so great at making. Yeah, the shakycam look is overused but it’s minor compared to the all great things the film has to offer.

Michael, thanks for being your usual informative self.

30 01 2008
JimmyChanga

OK, let’s not even talk about plot. Let’s talk about characters and motivation. What motivated that scene with the wrestling of the son? The son was clearly trying to leave (for what reason?) and was trying to avoid confrontation. The father said something about Yu coming back and started wrestling him. Huh? So you say there’s no plot but the movie definitely has things going on. Is it just a trick? Is the movie tricking me into thinking that there might be a plot, when the events that happen on screen are purely random occurrences? I’m not trying to figure out every last thing, and I don’t even care if there IS no plot. I LIKE plotless movies. But I just get really frustrated when there IS a plot and it’s totally confusing/messy/vague. There are movies where this type of vague-ness works and is okay, but here I have to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. I can’t explain it, but in this film I don’t trust what’s going on. I don’t trust the directorial authority here, like I would in other plotless movies. To me, there is something that seems very much like “OK I put this in here and it doesn’t make sense but so what it’s art”. And I know that is a bad criticism, because it’s so subjective. I think one reason may be because the film doesn’t try to let you into the characters at all, I didn’t feel like I could grasp their motivations at all. Anyway, it’s no big deal, I just wanted to put my fingers on exactly what made me dislike this so much.

30 01 2008
Eli

I actually thought that the shaky camera stuff at the start worked well. It brought you completely into that distinct place and its rhythm. I’d admit that for some parts I was a bit lost, but I always felt immersed by all that was happening in front of me.

30 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

I never had a feeling that that the characters were inaccessible.

Frankly, it’s been a couple of years since I last watched this (I’ve seen it 3 or so time so far) — and I can’t recall the details of every interaction. But I have no recollection of any scene being especiallyt confusing or opaque.

The one (deliberately) unanswered question is “what actually happened to the other brother”?

30 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

Oh — a few other Japanese women who direct films….

Naoko Ogigami — Kamome shokudo (Seagull Diner).
Yoshiko Senbon — Red Whale, White Snake
Miwa Nishikawa — Wild Berries, Sway
Kaze Shindo — Love/Juice (not seen — btw, Kaneto Shindo’s grand-daughter)

30 01 2008
Jake Savage

Hey, what a coincidence, some of those films somehow have english subs. Quite surprising….thanks as always.

31 01 2008
Michael Kerpan

Alas. Senbon’s very lovely film (starring Kyoko Kagawa!) has no subtitles. I have some info on this, Sway, and Seagull diner over on RM….

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