Monday, January 3, 2011

Far East Specials: Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigaraha)

There are movements in cinema history that clearly break away from how stories were traditionally told. Arguably two of the more famous ones were the French New Wave, with directors the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut leading the way, with the other being the remarkable works of BBS in the United States. Those examples are widely accepted as such, examples, by hundreds of critics and movie lovers. Then come the movies that, wildly loved or not by the larger film fan community, that strike the individual viewer as an oddity, but one marked by a certain brilliance very difficult to pin down. Its transcendental qualities are reached far beyond regular plot, editing and score. I am an admirer of Japanese cinema from the 40s, 50s and 60s, but never would I consider myself a connoisseur, not even close. It is therefore with trepidation that I dare compare Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes to something along the lines of what the French New Wave gave us for example, but its audaciousness produced similar excitement.

An entomologist (Eiji Okada) has a relaxing visit to a serene Japanese coastal region, in the hopes of discovering a new insect which would make his name prominent in academia. After a long afternoon of walking and searching among the dunes, he lies down for a nap…only to discover upon waking up that he has missed the last bus of the day on route back to town. Some of the locals of this dirt poor region offer him some refuge for the night, or so he is led to believe. After a short walk, they bring the protagonist to a hole in the ground, literally, where there is a wooden house kept in one piece by a woman (Kyoko Kishida). Expecting to leave the next morning, it is the entomologist’s shock and horror that the rope ladder has vanished and that he is being held prisoner in the hole with the woman, who are both condemned to shovel salty sand which in turn is sold to builders in large cities. With no cooperation from the woman, who has grown eerily comfortable in her surroundings, how is this man ever to escape?

Putting thoughts into text clearly when assessing Teshigaraha’s art house drama Woman in the Dunes was more difficult than I had foreseen. Its themes are powerful but are transmitted through the strangest of plots and some intentionally unorthodox music, as well as performances that demand surprising precision and emotion from the two leads, Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida. It is a film where certain questions need not be asked. If the forced couple are living in a large hole in the dunes (as are multiple other couples we learn eventually), then how is it no helicopters or airplanes have reported of their existence? Why go through so much trouble to set all of this up just for sand, which cannot possibly be worth as much as other minerals or off-shore resources? More pertinent are the questions the film itself asks and the subversive manners in handles the two central yet diametrically opposed characters. Teshigahara refuses to lay things out properly, preferring to get messy with the emotional and psychological complexity of the situation the entomologist and his forced companion are condemned to live through by their greedy captors.

What exactly this film want to say and how does it go about transmitting those notions to the audience? Woman in the Dunes is a beautiful example of elliptical filmmaking, where things are hinted at which in turn produce a great many reactions from the viewer. The sights and sounds of Teshigahara’s effort are probably what make themselves known the most clearly. From the outset, the motion picture’s jarring, rhythmic score pounds its ways into our ears. It is reminiscent of the music played in slasher horror films, but here accompanies scenes that are practically serene in their beauty, if scary for what the viewers fears might happen next. Our first glimpse into this odd world is of the entomologist walking across the sandy dunes that seem to engulf him. Seemingly random images of insects are thrown at us. As the man makes some feeble attempts at escaping his situation, the camera will rest on waves upon waves of sand descending upon the protagonist, sliding him back down to the bottom of the hole, his sense of hope being erased as every additional effort to dig himself out only further proves its futility. Slave labour in the 20th century is one of the pervasive themes of the film (or so I believe). Slavery is something often deemed antiquated, no longer a significant issue in today’s world. The reality is that sweat shops, cash crops and other forms of slave labour remain a troubling reality even in 2011. Just as ridiculous as slave labour seems in our day and age, the situation of the two main characters seems ridiculous. It is an issue that should no longer plague the poor and desperate, we need to be more civilized than we are. Just as the entomologist handpicked defenceless bugs at the beginning of the film and works on them during his break time from shovelling, he and the woman were defenceless against the duplicitous nature of their maters upon initial captivity and subsequently against their doomed fates.

We frequently rediscover inspiration on the human spirit, in its ability to feed off some intangible energy and drive us forward when the light at the end of the tunnel is fading. I am being fancy with words, but there is little doubt that the readers understand the author’s intent. Woman in the Dunes is a film about the human spirit in that it explores, thanks in part to wonderful performances by Okada and Kishida, the destruction of that strength and humans resolving to live in their pitiful conditions. What might be read as a contradiction to some is in fact a bold strategy to inspire the viewer. The woman who has lived in the dunes before the actual start of the film shows no resolve to flee her condition. More than once she remarks, albeit briefly, how without the sand, or her relative importance in this unorthodox line of work, she would be worthless. The tragic death of her husband and child is mentioned and, in essence, she strongly beliefs to no longer serve any purpose in life other than the one currently forced upon her. Shovelling sand at night, food restricted to minimal rations send down by their masters, never an opportunity to see the sea, a dirty, sand infested wooden shack impersonating a house…it sad existence if there ever was one. Yet, the woman is apparently content. At first the entomologist is furious at the woman and his new employers (can such a term be used if they are not paying him?) for having tricked him into living like a lowly slave. As the days turn into weeks however, something odd happens. The lack of human contact, the isolation from regular society, a failed attempt at escape and, why not, the ever-present sand which apparently attracts moisture, the protagonist slowly finds some strange comfort zone, even making love to his female companion. Internal personal factors and the outside forces eventually mutate his outlook from anger and a desire of freedom to an acceptance of his fate. This acceptance is expressed in specific ways, like the companionship of a woman, his interest in understanding why water is appearing underneath the surface of the ground they live on, and the possibility of being granted 30 minutes a day to walk along the shore, small respite considering the circumstances. Both actors give memorable performances, Kishida as the delusional woman who has found a level of contentment, persistent in her claims about how things are really great, Okada as the raging bull who eventually receives his tranquilizer shots, figuratively speaking.

Hiroshi Teshigaraha constructs a study of the human condition of almost mythic proportions. Mental strength is broken down, leading to a conclusion that on the surface is a downer, very much so. The beauty found in the film, apart the movie’s visually arresting black and white cinematography, is how it can inspire the viewer after showing him or her people who have accepted a fate setup for them against their will. Sometimes it really is the depressing films that can remind us of just how strong we are.

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