Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: Still Walking

Still Walking (2008, Horikazu Koreeda)

On a scorching hot day, a family gathers together at the grandparents' home on the 17th anniversary of the tragic death of one of their own. Although at first glance the occasion seems to be a rather pleasant one, with family members seeing one another for the first time in quite some time and enjoying one another's company, very subtle ill feelings and differences are shown between certain family members, most notably between the grandfather, a former doctor who worked hard all his life, and his son Ryo (Hiroshi Abe), a struggling artist of sorts and who has recently fallen in love with and married a widowed mother. While whatever bitter emotions or regretful thoughts never fully explode over the course of this special day, it becomes increasingly obvious that there are many things are not being said, but rather quasi hidden beneath certain subtle actions and falsely innocent throw away lines and comments.

It's with patience and care that Koreeda paints this family portrait. A bit like another film I reviewed recently, Nostalgia for the Countryside, there are clear signs of raw emotions stirring underneath the pot's cover, but they never result in any overly dramatic antics in the film. The characters all have a certain sense of pride that wouldn't permit such behaviour. But along the way, every small moment hen an awkward comment is made, there is unquestionably a discomfort or frustration that can be read on the faces of the character on the receiving end of the blow. When Ryo finds his father and son together in the old man's study, he discovers that the grandfather is encouraging the young boy to become a doctor, just like himself. The grandmother makes a handful of bizarre comments about drinking, windows and children that soon irk Ryo's new wife. I won't get into any more of these scenes, but suffice to say that there are certain long suffering issues that this family needs to deal with.

But this isn't a particularly dark movie despite the description I've provided above. They may have issues, but they are family that shows love after all. There are several instances that bring display potential richness and pleasure that only family gatherings can conjure up. Director Koreeda is content with showing the audience the little moments that characterize these kinds of family gatherings. Members cooking with each other, children from different different sides meeting up to play, old stories brought up once again, etc. It's all executed here quite naturally, which is a credit not only to the directing, but also to the acting. The cast is for the most part very good, with maybe a few personalities not resonating as much, but mostly because they aren't awarded sufficient screen time to develop and strike me, such as the chap whom I assumed was Ryo's brother in law. I was unfamiliar with all of the players here but I easily got the sense that they were indeed family members with their own histories and relations. I was under the impression that a lot of writing and preparation had gone into the development of these characters, thus lending the experience a very authentinc feeling. Either that or these aren't filmmakers but rather magicians. It was sometimes in the actions and at other times in the dialogue, but I felt that I was very much privy to a real family's day together. There are several funny lines, particularly earlier in the film, that enhance the setting very nicely.

The writing that went into these characters was impressive, especially the grandmother. She is a sweet lady for the most part, but there are times when she'll say something that doesn't quite sound right and I was left wondering if she there as any hidden malice behind the words or if she had merely spoken her mind without ever once trying to hurt anyone. There is one moment late in the film however that shows that on one particular issue, grandma can show a bad side.

Apart from the final scene, which I don't feel was all that necessary, I very much liked Still Walking. At times I felt there was a certain Rachel Getting Married vibe (minus the wedding and the hand held camera technique) Both are about family gatherings, both have stories that involve the death of a loved one in the past, and both feature family members facing each other with certain regrets. Both are also very good.

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