Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: Hakuchi

Hakuchi (1999, Macoto Tezuka)

Based on the novel of the same name from author Sakaguchi, Hakuchi is set in an undefined time period (although it is safe to assume that is more or less contemporary) and during an undefined war that is ravaging Japan. The country is frequently bombed, with several city quarters looking like what Berlin did at the end of WII. Essentially, it is an alternate universe, a dystopia if you will.

A young television show assistant director named Izawa (Tadanobu Asano from Ichi fame) is experiencing a personal crisis. He has no woman, the show he works for at the media center, a very Tower of Babel-esque structure that oversees far off into the distance, is nothing but pop culture dreck mixed with some nationalistic propaganda for good measure. He is abused by his immediate superior as well as by the frequent guest star on the show, a late teen pop sensation named Ginga (Reika Hashimoto) , supposedly just a stage name. Izawa lives in a poor neighbourhood, and although his downstairs neighbours are alright, it is quickly established that his neck of the woods is filled with oddball characters.

Quiet, shy and battling a personal struggle with his emotions and deepest innermost thoughts, he comes harrowingly close to committing suicide on multiple occasions. In his youth he would make short films with an 8mm camera, which he still owns, but there is currently little hope for either his artistic strengths of ever expanding, or to find general comfort and solace. As fate would have it, one day the ‘slow’ wife of the literally insane next door neighbour flees her home and takes refuge in Izawa’s closet. Maybe, just maybe, it is with this ‘idiot woman’ (hence the title of the film, Hakuchi) that Izawa will find a glimmer of light in his life.

About half way through the running time of Hakuchi, a thought struck me. It came quickly and made me pause the film for a moment. It occurred to me that this movie was very much like the much-maligned Southland Tales. Dystopian future, the country at the doorstep of destruction, crazy settings and characters, some music videos, etc. However, while I was never able to really get into Southland Tales, I found myself liking Hakuchi quite a bit. It would be difficult to pinpoint one argument, or one theme that the movie attempts to develop. It’s a mish mash of many ideas, themes and arguments, but rather than making a mess of things, which I felt Southland Tales unfortunately did, I think Hakuchi survives the experiment, maybe not unscathed, but in good shape nonetheless. There is an existential element to the story that lends itself well to cinematic adaptation. I read that the novel itself is filled with intriguing elements of existentialism, which can always pose problems when the time comes to create a filmic translation.

I think what director Tezuka opts to do here is let, for the most part, the visual guide the experience. There is dialogue, some of it rather good, some of which rings quite false, but from beginning to end I felt the visual style of the film was impressive and very immersive. I couldn’t possibly tell you what the budget on the film was, but I had the impression that it couldn’t have been overwhelming. There are simple tricks at works here. Lighting and its colour, which consequently dictates what the shadowing in a shot will be like. Camera angles, line of vision, panoramic shots, makeup. Many of these elementary visual hallmarks of filmmaking are used to maximum effect here. In fact, when a rare shot that does not look good rears its ugly head, it usually has computer generated imagery in it. Fear not, I’m not one of those ‘oh god, CGI is so terrible’ movie buffs, but of all the visual enhancement tools a film can use, that one always strikes me the most when used improperly. Notwithstanding that factor, Tezuka brings a confident visual tone to the film that really carries a lot of the load.

The characters themselves, particularly the two most important ones, Izawa and the ‘idiot woman’ are a nice fit. Izawa doesn’t say much in the film quite frankly, but that never bothered me a whole lot. After all, the story doesn’t take place during his transition of hope to despair. Instead, as the film opens, he already finds himself in a state of depression. He cannot relate to this decadent society and therefore has little to say anyways. It’s in his actions with the idiot woman that we see the lighter side of him emerge. And what a character to find happiness with…this slow, incompetent woman. She’s an oddity, but when she even rejects her own household and finds herself alone and ‘hated’ as she claims at one point, it is then that these two characters find a fit for each other. Peanut butter and bread before anybody tried for the first time. It’s a strange relationship, with many scenes occurring in what I think were dreams, but there is an underlying sweetness to it. I like it when a movie…maybe not pushes the envelope, but puts a twist on the old romance angle. It’s a very understated performance from Asano and one could argue that he practically doesn’t do anything at all, but I wouldn’t go that far and in fact thought he fit the role nicely.

Not all the characters are enjoyable unfortunately. The bloke who I presume is the producer of the show is very much a caricature. Dressed and behaving practically like a general, I felt many of the scenes involving him were too on the nose (interestingly, I’m noticing that a lot of the films I’ve watched in this bracket, when trying to go for something ‘political’, suffered this same fate). The first few minutes of his appearance ere amusing, but he grew tiresome after a short while. The other character that needs mention is Ginga, the cranky pop star. She is the princess, the one audiences supposedly look up to and admire (no evidence of this is ever given, which I kind of liked in fact). Her song are either pathetic propaganda or simply pathetic pop songs. I’d love to insert a Hanna Montana joke but, honest to god, I’ve never heard one so that will have to wait for another battle. The movie makes her something of an double-edged sword. On the surface she is practically Satan’s pawn, but backstage she behaves with this odd mixture of kindness and selfishness. The film eventually offers a monologue scene in which she reveals the truth behind her bitchy fa├žade. I’m not sure I completely bought it however. Even a full day after watching the movie I’m not entirely convinced the film earned that moment.

At basically 2 ½ hours long, there is plenty to dissect and discuss (there are references to a Japanses emperor and such), but I shall refrain from continuing. Suffice to say that Hakuchi, while not a masterpiece by any stretch of the definition, is certainly a well crafted movie overall and one that has its fair share of visually stimulating and thought-provoking moments. A few loose screws, but overall a neat movie.

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