Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Nakashima's visually stunning "Kokuhaku" is a tour de force of emotionally charged drama and engrossing visuals. Its thought-provoking and often times controversial storyline will haunt one's senses and challenge your notions of morality.
In fact the story's ambiguity is cleverly represented in its title "Kokuhaku" which in Japanese can be defined in two ways - not only to confess one's sins but also to confess one's love.
The story inventively starts in the middle with pretty Middle School teacher, Moriguchi Yuko (wonderfully realized by J-Dorama favorite Matsu Takako) announcing to her homeroom class that she is retiring. Of course, her apathetic and unruly students snidely celebrate her departure with laughter and high-fives. Yuko proceeds to then tell the students of the reason of her departure. In flashback we see the devastating and tragic loss of her five-year old daughter Manami (cute Ashida Mana), who drowned in the school's pool one night. While authorities label the death as an accidental drowning, Yuko discovers to her shock a more sinister explanation. Her daughter was intentionally drowned by two of her own students - the emotionally troubled "mama's boy" Shiomura Naoki (Fujiwara Kaoru) and the emotionally distant yet intellectually gifted Murakawa Shinya (Amami Juri), whom she just calls "Boy B" and "Boy A" respectively. Knowing that the authorities will not take any serious action given the fact that the two are just 13 year old minors, Yuko nonchalantly explains that she has already taken her revenge on the two by tainting their lunch milk with a syringe containing blood from her ex-husband who has HIV (she is also HIV Positive). Thus begins the story proper which examines the shattered lives of these two students as well as the tragic aftermath of this "confession" and of the cruel horrors that transpire from it. Like "Pandora's Box" Yuko's revenge unleashes an evil more darker than she could have ever imagined.
"Kokuhaku", based on the best selling 2008 Japanese novel of the same name by author Minato Kanae, is a blunt indignation of Japanese society and takes particular critical aim at its increasingly apathetic and narcissistic youth. Nakashima's screenplay drives this hard portrayal in by showing us that despite the unspeakable crime committed by the two students, the true evil lies in the resultant bullying and social ostracizing that results at the hands of their classmates. Despite all the information that has been distributed by the media on AIDS and how it is contracted, the ignorance and social stigma shown by the students is truly horrifying.
"Kokuhaku" is not a standard revenge movie and Nakashima masterfully deviates from the norm by focusing not on Yuko's rage but rather on the "monsters" that Yuko holds responsible for her daughter's death. As the movie unfolds, I unexpectedly found myself actually pitying these two poor souls as they were more-or-less victims themselves of unfortunate childhood traumas. While it doesn't excuse them of their crime, it does go far at explaining their motives and forces audiences to feel sympathy towards their plight.
The story's emotional impact is very much due to its extraordinary cast headed by the wonderful Matsu Takako (Long Vacation, Hero). I can understand now why Nakashima insisted on only having Matsu Takako portraying the part of the vengeful Yuko as she brings both a sense of tragic sadness and darkness to her role. Her quiet and understated portrayal is very effective (almost similar to Kaji Mieko's "Jyoshu Sasori" character) and if fact makes her character even more effective in a sense as it's almost like a slow, seething anger. Fujiwara Kaoru and Amami Juri are also quite good as the two juveniles. While Fujiwara tends to overplay his of part Naoki to the point of hysterics, Amami is the one who stands out as the intellectually brilliant Shin whose anti-social persona is just an affront to hide his need for his scientist mother's love and approval. Amami plays Shin as both a tragic and frightening character study. Hashimoto Ai is also great as Kitahara Mitsuki, Shin's only friend and kindred spirit who develops a compassion for the troubled youth and who foolishly believes that her love alone can change him. She is absolutely beautiful and is a definite star in the making. Kimura Yoshino is also wonderful as Naoki's devoted mother. Her performance is very unnerving and showed the unyielding love that her character had for her troubled son (a nice mirror to Matsu Takako's devotion to her character's daughter). Likable actor Okada Masami gives a good performance as the hopelessly optimistic and naive substitute teacher Yoshiteru Terada who attempts to reach out to both Naoki and Shin but whose general concern and good intentions soon become another destructive instrument in Yuko's revenge scheme. While only a small role Yamada Kinera's portrayal of Shin's estranged scientist mother was touching.
The cinematography compliments of Nakashima regular Ato Masakazu and Ozawa Atsushi are breathtaking and beautiful. They add to the emotional impact of the story and are absolutely stunning. Even the gory bits were beautifully rendered and shot (which seems almost strangely ironic).
"Kokuhaku" shatters the perpetual foreign stereotype of Japanese students as polite, docile, overly respectful and timid children and shows us that like in any other countries, some of today's youth have succumbed to the stresses of peer pressure, sense of self worth and purpose and have become selfish and disillusioned. The film is a cautionary tale of those dangers and also challenges the audience's notion and senses of morality. Are Yuko's a actions justified or has she become even more despicable, irresponsible and reckless as the students she holds response for her daughter's death? Does the ends really justify the means or does society really create its own monsters?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

My Name is Tilda Swinton, and I Am Love

It is one thing to be an accomplished actor and appear modest while appearing to share, even allude your personal success over those around you; it’s a whole different paradox to be an acting phenomenon like Tilda Swinton and say you don’t deserve it, for frankly she hates her profession and loathes what she does best. As far as Swinton’s concerned, she’s not even really an actor. She could give up her whole career for something like poetry, as easily as she had switched into the profession from writing prose. “I’m a complete fraud,” she claims in an interview on her college life. “I was accepted as a poet. And I got there and I stopped writing. I started performing very half-heartedly.” In fact, Tilda sees herself as not an artist, but an artist’s material for art, an unmoulded lump of clay that takes form under the minstrels of an artisan. She is the artsy equivalent of an untethered, suicidal, mountain-climbing expert, who wants to lose his life while the very skill he possesses protects him from doing exactly that. Media-hogs might call her a weirdo. Celebrity gossip-mongers hate her for her defiant, indifferent attitude towards public gossip. Contemporary art-lovers might remember her as the woman who slept as a piece of installation for a whole week, in the middle of a gallery. Connoisseurs of the film industry know her as the famous actress who doesn’t employ a publicist. Those who live on the glitzy couture ramp might recall a strange fashion show, where every model resembled Swinton, and the only music was her own voice, reading poetry.
So here we have a born Prima Donna, who doesn’t know how to be conventional even if she wants to, playing one of the most conservative, modern roles that could be offered, to a modern actress for whom, bohemianism is something akin to a philosophy. And the fact that she delivers even such a role with steadfast grace is what makes I Am Love so great.
I Am Love was conceived over an extensive period of eleven years, not necessarily daunting for Swinton, considering her loyalty towards all those she’s worked with till today. Luca Guadagnino, the director couldn’t really have asked for more when his close friend and favourite actor agreed not only to act as the lead, but also co-produce his film.

I Am Love opens with a birthday party that has been so meticulously prepared, that it almost readies you for the important role that food will play in the next one and a half hours of the story. We see Swinton in control of the preparations, speaking fluent Italian, with a Russian accent that she learned to genuinely fake. She’s the lady of the household, giving commands to the staff and having the final say in home keeping matters. The household that we behold is not exactly large; large is where you’d start describing it. Every single aspect of the huge residential palace is meant to invoke an overwhelming sense of intimidating grandeur. Every furniture, wall and chandelier look like fragments of one large rock of crystal, and so do those who inhabit this massive space. And today, everyone in the family has assembled for the royal birthday feast. The birthday-boy turns out to be the extremely aged patriarch of the family, Edoardo Reicchi (Gabriele Ferzetti), who has finally decided that the time has come to hand over the reins of the Reicchi family business empire to his son and grandson. Now the older Reicchis have an almost imperceptible, dare say even arrogant sense of pride and aristocracy that almost immediately seems outrageous, in stark contrast with the more liberal attitude that characterizes the grandchildren. Like when the grandson loses a simple betting game in a horserace and the whole family takes it upon themselves as a dent in their own personal pride, berating him endlessly on how it’s impossible for a Reicchi to have lost. Therefore, when so much pride is at stake, it makes sense when the whole family is tense and apprehensive as soon as the old man announces the bequeathing of his business empire to his son and grandson, Edo.
Now Emma, (Swinton) is the maître‘d of the house, she is the wife, mother and daughter-in-law of the house. A character manufactured by circumstances, there’s absolutely nothing in her repertoire of duties that’s more important than fulfilling what the three above-mentioned roles of the household require her to do. She is the feeble, yet nearly non-existent (but not invisible) balance that holds the three generations together, though very nearly a non-entity when it comes to matters involving business. She’s a trophy wife, imported from communist-era Russia, unable to return, and who has learned not to feel repressed, suppressed or oppressed over the years within a family that has made her change her customs, her way of dressing, her language and even her very name in order to blend in. She is in every way, the perfect mother, wife, housekeeper, and the perfect embodiment of a rich Italian’s wife. She knows and accepts the demands of the role of her place in the Reicchi family. She is smiling, gracious, beautiful and very taut and controlled without being cold. And judging by the general mood in the banquet room, it’s pretty obvious that the evening is a grand success for Emma, save for the occasional hiccup when the grand-daughter disappoints the old man with an abstract photograph instead of the regular artwork in paint. As defined, aristocratic and controlled as these initial sequence of events may seem, everything that follows afterwards is a meticulous and rather total deconstruction of whatever had struck you as awesome.

Midway through the party, Emma chances upon a man called Antonio, who turns out to be the guy who tied with Edo over the betting earlier that day. He happens to be a simpleton, with some amazing culinary skills. Emma is intrigued by the man right away, but quickly shies away and rejoins her party.
A couple of years later, Emma discovers through a letter, addressed to her son, about her daughter’s relationship with a girlfriend. Though a fact like this, about a daughter’s sexuality could make a parent go raving mad, under conventional circumstances, we see Emma become quite curious, even holding the letter, re-reading it like as though it’s some talisman. In more than one way, this incident acts as a catalyst, a trigger of sorts that set forth a chain of events that inevitably, but swiftly snowballs into tragedy. Edo is by now sure of the fact that he’s in love with Antonio (now appointed as a cook in the Reicchi’s household), and is trying to get the message across with shy, subtle hints. But Emma, unaware of her son’s feelings and curious about her newfound sexual freedom, also falls in love with the same man, indulging in a secretly contrived, yet passionate affair which under the circumstances, is almost like firing a loose cannon at a dam-wall.
With subtle hints and a heavy feeling of romanticism, Luca Guadagnino’s story unfolds like an Opera in five acts and a cinematic aria to the bourgeoisie with a suffocatingly gaudy sense of opulence and magnitude. Tilda Swinton has described it as “Visconti on acid” which captures something of the sumptuous luxury that the camera captures: pale carpets so thick that footfalls become mute, corridors as highways of marble, interiors designed with a glacial, restrained eye. The men dress-up in bespoken shirts and suits; the women in Jill Sander, Prada and Hermes. This is the feudal nobility of Visconti’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) relocated from the Sicily of the Risorgimento to the salone of the haute bourgeoisie of modern-day Milan.
Not since Peter Greeenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover has food looked so sensual and provided an exact metaphor for power and sex. The eating of a succulent langoustine becomes a moment of erotic epiphany for the main character, Emma Reicchi. Every element on the plate is erotically charged, a kama sutra of flavours for the sensual appetites. Meals in the Reicchi dining room become acts of power politics or carnal seduction. The rituals of the table define this class. And, in the end, a sip of translucent soup will play a part in the collapse of the House of Reicchi.

There’s a surprisingly surreal sort of form factor that John Adam’s minimalist music commands, one that might seem perfect for the moment, in a soundtrack, but vibrant and overpowering when listened to on a record. The heavy use of non-amplified duct and reed instruments make it sound really powerful, like a grand ceremonial concerto in the middle of a church, filled with sunlight and apprehension.. Musical geniuses like Adams and Michael Nyman rarely come out of their den-like confines of symphonies and other chamber music. But when they do, this is what results. Adams never even had to do original scoring for the movie. Infact, the entire soundtrack has been wrought out of his well-known operas, Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, both politically charged and heavy on the grandeur, still not quite out of place in a passionate love story such as this, also the reason for bringing the theatric feel.
I Am Love is a melodramatic riff on the Lady Chatterly/Mellors narrative: aristo, in oppressive marriage, falls for gardener and finds sexual liberation. In the case of I Am Love, Emma Ricchi falls for a cook and upstairs meets downstairs in flagrante delicto. The description of this coupling (like so many of the couplings in D.H. Lawrence) is devoid of joy and humanity. An act of supposed emancipation, feels peculiarly corseted and straight laced. As a consequence, the passion at the heart of I Am Love is reduced to torrid metaphorical gestures that left me rather cold. We learn that if you marry for money or status or power you will get money or status or power, because love cannot be bought but that’s the limit of any moral insight. There is, for example, no exploration of the morality, motives or consequences of Emma Reicchi’s adultery. The audience is simply expected to be unthinkingly swept along by her act of rebellion.
I Am Love is a film of immense pleasures, every one of them beautifully designed, framed and hallmarked. It evokes a social milieu that, while aesthetically rich, is inhabited by economic elite who are emotionally and spiritually infantile. As Tilda Swinton, reflecting on the Reicchi dynasty, admits, “no unearned income is fair, after all; it costs the soul eventually.” For all this melodrama’s sensual delights, I Am Love left me hungry for characters and plot with more psychological and moral depth and flavour. Perhaps, that will come with Guadagnino’s next film. I can’t wait to see how this impressive talent develops. Until then, I will have to live with the delicious memory of that langoustine and that bowl of deadly Russian Oucha soup.

By Fazil, for Passionforcinema.com
To read the original article, click here