Receiving its world premiere at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival, Motel Acacia is a truly global production. Financed by The Philippines, Slovenia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, the film even features two Australian actors, Will Jaymes and Talia Zucker.
Marking the long-awaited return to the screen of Alicia Vikander, the 1980s Japan-set Netflix film Earthquake Bird, directed by Wash Westmoreland, found a welcome home at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
What are the chances of two illiterate grandmothers becoming internationally recognised sharpshooters? What if those grandmothers came from the same extended family in rural, patriarchal India? You might say this is the stuff of Bollywood, but the surprise is – these people exist. The real Chandro Tomar and sister-in-law Prakashi Tomar make a celebratory cameo appearance in Tushar Hiranandani’s light biopic. There is a disclaimer though, emphasising the fictitious nature of the film’s content.
In Hindi commercial cinema, substantial roles for aging female actors – apart from those of the self-sacrificing mother and grandmother, have been rare. Times are changing and since the beginning of the 21st century, roles for women are being redefined as ‘women’s empowerment’ films have gained momentum. Among them there have been biopics about Indian sportswomen – the boxer Mary Kom (self-titled 2014 film), and the wrestling Phogat sisters (Dangal, 2016). Neither of these films dealt with the double-barreled problem of ageism and sexism. Saand KiAankh is endowed with ripe material but its storytelling falters, becoming predictable and failing to develop its subordinate characters.
This is Hiranandani’s debut as director; his previous experience was writing comedies and mass entertainers. The screenplay by Balwinder Singh Janjua works to a template that audiences are familiar with. Dramatic, insurmountable stand-offs are followed by rhetorical bursts and an all too quick and convenient resolution.
The few instances of detail and nuance are highlights here, such as the story of Prakashi’s sewing machine, how it came to her, its uses and emotional ‘demise’; Chandro and Prakashi’s ritual of tying knots in their head scarves to celebrate their secret victories. However, the film may have benefited from a more authentic female gaze.
The selection of the leading actors was initially puzzling. Taapsee Pannu (Prakashi) and Bhumi Pednekar (Chandro) are in their thirties but play 60-year olds. There was a flashback to their younger selves, but admittedly the actors give impressive, heart-felt performances in their elderly roles. Had the makeup been more convincing, and if you ignore Taapsee Pannu with her portrayals of sophisticated young urbanites, then disbelief could have been fully suspended.
Although the bond between Chandro and Prakashi is well established, the remaining characters are flat and stereotypical. The husbands are lazy and entitled, the doctor who establishes the village shooting range (Vineet Kumar Singh) is liberal and considerate, the male shooting competitors are derisive and surly….. Problems arise when the Tomar daughters are given similarly shallow treatment since they are extensions of the women’s desire for fulfilment. The film seems to be angling for an intergenerational subplot which isn’t fully realised.
Shooting competitions come and go in a bit of a blur. The stakes are not varied or delineated clearly enough to make for nail-biting tension.
Of course, the sharpshooting dadis (grandmothers) are to be admired. It is also great that 86-year-old veteran playback singer Asha Bhosle performs the most reflective song in the film. Her voice alone is enough to invoke the passage of time, soul and age. If only elements of the screenplay had been so impactful.
Not every film is meant to make an audience feel good. Some of the greatest moments in cinema history are the result of putting a stone into the viewer’s stomach, making them connect with a fictional story so viscerally that they feel melancholy or even anger. The distinction between a ‘good’ depressing film and a bad one is all down to intent and presentation: is there a reason why it wants to get that kind of reaction from the viewer? Is it a worthy invitation for empathy or is it simply inflicting misery for its own sake? Siblings Of The Cape, in no uncertain terms, fits into the latter category.
It’s the story of life below Japan’s poverty line through the eyes of a pair of siblings, the physically-disabled Yoshio (Yûya Matsuura) and the intellectually-disabled Mariko (Misa Wada). It aims for a Larry Clark/Harmony Korine style griminess to show how dire their living situation is, eg. the two of them resorting to eating tissues out of the garbage just to fill their stomachs. However, much like Clark and Korine, rather than saying anything of note about their class situation and/or what it makes people resort to, this is far more content to just wallow in its own misery.
As a last resort, in order to pay the bills, Yoshio literally pimps out his own sister for money. His developmentally-challenged, dependent-on-others, questionable-whether-she-can-even-consent-in-the-first-place sister. This is what makes up the bulk of the film’s narrative. Disabled sex workers are indeed a thing, and the over-simplistic argument of ‘disability = unable to consent’ is a complicated issue. But one deserving of more thought and actual understanding than anything found here.
There’s a scene where Yoshio gets accosted by other pimps, put into a wooden box and forced to watch his sister have sex with a john. That is this movie.
Aside from stimming around the house and engaging in sex work, Mariko has no agency. No real character of her own other than the label of ‘mentally disabled’. The film starts with her being both locked inside her own house and chained to the wall so she doesn’t leave, and it only gets worse from there. The only mercy given to her by the filmmakers is that, when we get to the scene with faeces-throwing (another disability stereotype given lip service here), it’s Yoshio doing it.
If there was a tangible point to this celluloid misery, it may have resulted in a visceral reaction. Instead, rather than feeling anything towards the characters, it only engenders resentment against the filmmakers who thought any of this was a good idea. It is manipulative bile without a point, and it makes one pine for the safe, reliable days of Freddy Got Fingered as far as depictions of sexually-active disabled people go.
The trappings of independent cinema transcend cultural boundaries. The emphasis on intimate character studies, minor narrative setup that feels like an excuse for the characters to be highlighted, keyboard-centric soundtrack that sounds like it was written for ads playing in the background of pharmacies – even for the uninitiated in Japanese cinema, what appears in writer/director Yuko Hakota’s debut feature should still ring familiar. As much as all of this may sound like backhanded statements, Blue Hour does make for good drama, although one wishes that it carried just a little more emotional heft.
Centred on Kaho’s Sunada, a 30-something commercial director working in Tokyo, Blue Hour serves explores antisocial tendencies in the more literal sense: people who actively avoid other people. Between Kaho and Eun-Kyung Shim’s frequent moments of people-watching, their bonding over homemade comic books, and the numerous iterations of self-centred humanity, this all carries a certain Daniel Clowes social distance quality. Only it replaces Clowes’ plain-faced misanthropy with copious amounts of self-loathing, with Sunada claiming that she is doing everyone a service for not having to deal with her.
The way that relationships form the self, ends up containing the bulk of the narrative, as we see Sunada’s connection (or lack thereof) to others. Her strained relationship to her husband, her chalk-meets-cheese dynamic opposite Eun-Kyung Shim’s Kiyoura, her hesitant connection to her parents and grandmother, even down to her experiences with animals and insects. It echoes certain greener sentiments about how healthy connections to wildlife can lead to a more empathetic relation to living things as a whole, a trait that Sunada is shown to be lacking initially given her unsettling childhood recollections.
As backed by Ryuto Kondo’s sterile yet warm cinematography, Daisuke Imai’s editing that helps bring the intentionally jarring nature of the pacing to the forefront, and the combined efforts of Nao Matsuzaki and alt-rock group Shikanoichizoku on the soundtrack, Blue Hour is the story of a woman essentially growing out of her self-imposed shell and reconnecting with those around her. Again, it shares traits with Western indie dramas, looking like something Lena Dunham could eye for a remake, and part of that comes with the low-key emotional wavelength that some may have difficulty adjusting to.
But beyond that, this still makes for a resonate depiction of social isolation and 30-something ennui. Despite its main catch-call of tackiness is life, it resolutely avoids dipping too far into cliché and the production values are as far removed from being tacky as you can get.
In urban Japan, there is a particular bathhouse. By day, it functions just like any other, a communal space for the unwashed masses to cleanse themselves. But by night, it becomes a Grand Guignol, where mobsters execute and dispose of bodies, turned to ashes in the water heater. ‘Business as usual’ takes on a whole new meaning in director/writer/editor Seiji Tanaka’s debut feature, and if this is his first step into cinema, he has a bright future ahead.
The matter-of-factness of the setting and main character Kazuhiko’s place within it gives the film a certain Scorsese-esque tinge, where the normality of such grotesque actions gives way to its own brand of quiet terror. The visuals make it a point not to linger on the blood spray for too long, treating it as routinely as the characters themselves.
Kazuhiko, a Tokyo University graduate who hasn’t managed to hold down a full-time job yet, finds himself venturing deeper and deeper into the bathhouse’s hidden utilisation, but it only briefly serves as a shock to the system. Beyond that, it becomes simply part of the job description, as he cleans up the blood and corpses before the day customers arrive.
It serves partly as casual horror, but it also gives way to a certain gallows humour. Watching Kazuhiko converse with his co-workers and his family, whether it’s talking around the specifics of his work or getting into the simple mechanics of why certain people meet their end at his workplace, it’s difficult not to notice the absurdity of the situation. It also potentially leads to cries of “why is he still there?”, but that turns into another avenue of dread, one far closer to home.
The truly messed-up part of this premise is that, even removed from its violent specifics, it’s a scenario that is all-too-frequent in the workforce across the board. The more a given employee knows about who they work for, the more likely they are to find certain… discrepancies. The people and groups that the work helps keep funded, the actions made to keep the work coming in and out, the blind eyes that get turned whenever something unsavoury pops up that may jeopardise the business; you don’t have to look far to find this going on right under people’s noses.
And much like Kazuhiko, most can’t afford to argue with it. Money is the oil that keeps the machinery moving, and since all humans need sustenance, lodging and a place to be made useful, rejection of the nitty gritty of the system is a luxury outside of the working-class tax bracket. Wrestling with one’s conscience to gather the funds needed to live is a sad state of affairs, but it’s reality. A reality that can be altered, but only through a possession of will, determination, and a willingness to change the system. That’s the weirdest part of all this: for as bleak as it is for its majority of screen time, it also contains a great big ball of optimism by story’s end.
“It’s raining sparks,” says Haruka Echigo’s Saki, as the sky fills with dreamlike fireworks during Moonless Dawn – a moody 60-minute feature on existential youth.
Inspired by the music of Japanese band LOWPOPLTD, Harika Abe’s debut steers the intertwining stories of three students in Shibuya. The first is Yuka (Yuka Nakao) – a popular schoolgirl who occasionally meets with strangers in love hotels; Saki, a timid and troubled student who is at odds with her strict parents, and Kou (Yuzu Aoki), an aspiring musician whose wimpy father teaches at his school.
Sitting uneasy at the precipice of junior high school, these aimless characters are drawn together by Kou’s music and develop a platonic bond that fills the void of dull Japanese academia and home life. Their meeting point (or club treehouse of sorts) is the rooftop of a mysterious building that overlooks the sullen city. A place they can jointly escape to, away from the moral and forced-upon obligations of their daily lives.
The film also muses on interesting present-day concerns about modern technology and relationships – where people are so accustomed to communication through their phones that they’ve forgotten what true interaction and connection feels like. Take Kou, for example, who barely acknowledges the existence of his single father – a man physically bullied by his own students and incapable of retaliation.
In another awkward scene, with minimal use of dialogue and eye contact, Kou invites a classmate over with the intention of making a move on her. Yuka, meanwhile, finds some form of imprudent satisfaction from encounters with seedy older men – relentlessly vying for her attention on Shibuya’s busy promenade.
Contrasting the village-like suburbia with the city’s modern constructs, Abe’s restrained direction suits Japan’s grey palette and allows her young actors to deliver understated performances which gently unravel and build portraits.
But the one-two combo of Moonlight Dawn’s brief running time and slice-of-life narrative means it never truly gains enough traction – the screenplay drifting as free-spirited as its characters, before an odd twist (or turn?) and unsatisfying denouement. The result is a peculiar and laconic snapshot of Japanese adolescence that would better suit an intriguing TV pilot, rather than a feature film.