Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Far East Specials: M/Other

*originally published on the Filmspotting message boards July 15, 2009. I love this 'mother' dearly and thought I should resurrect this review that earned some praise on the message boards. A bit lazy on my part? Perhaps, but new material will be coming in the next couple days.

M/Other (1999, Nobuhiro Suwa)

This movie is a love letter to two categories of people. Firstly, it is a movie that should speak to anyone who’s had to deal, in some way or another, with complicated familial situations, more specifically, when a father or mother introduces their children to their current partner. In the current age of marriages that fall apart more often than I can eat boxes of Reese Puffs cereal (trust me, you haven’t seen me gobble those down), this happens with frightening frequency. It can be very awkward, both for the child and for the surrogate mother or father. Secondly, the film is for those who like damn fine filmmaking.  More specifically, quiet filmmaking.

Director Suwa’s family drama M/Other is a perfect example of doing more with less, a movie one must savour bit by bit and scene by scene. It is about as real a film as one can be without being an actual documentary. It takes it’s time to set the story up, and once that has been accomplished, embraces a naturalistic script that simply depicts the changing emotions experienced by two lovers, Aki and Tetsuro (Makiko Watanabe and Tomokazu Miura respectively). There situation rests on the tip of a pin. Things can fall one way or the other.  It is a movie that exploits an economy of editing with sublime precision. To be blunt, it is a film that took me by complete surprise and reminded me of what simple directing and storytelling can accomplish in cinema. Yes, it is possible to make a quiet film that carries a wallop of a punch, one directed at my nuts for thinking inside the box all the time and another…to my heart.

Testsuro is the manager of a small chain of what seems to be relatively classy restaurant. Business is doing poorly, as can be overheard in his discussions with his employees at work. Aki, his partner, his lover, his ‘second half’, works in some kind of graphic design office. They live together in a nice enough looking house, but have no children, at least not together. In the film’s first scene, Tetsuro explains to Aki that his wife- uh, ex-wife, has been in a car accident with his son. Nobody’s dead, the accident wasn’t that terrible, but his ex-wife needs to spend a month or so in the hospital. His young boy Shun (Hiroo Fuseya), was spared any significant injuries, apart from on his arm for which he must wear a cast temporarily. At first, it is believed that Shun will remain at some relatives of his while his mother recovers in the hospital. One day soon after, Tetsuro learns that those relatives can’t keep him, meaning that little Shun will have to stay at his place. He drives him over one morning, without alerting Aki of the situation. The latter, upon learning that her partner’s son from another relationship will be staying in their home for approximately 1 month, is taken aback, somewhat aghast at this new, unforeseen change of plans. She doesn’t know this child, has never met him. What if he hates her, what if she hates him, etc? Tetsuro, after explaining that all this happened on extremely short notice, assures Aki that he will be the one taking full responsibility for the boy and that she won’t have to worry about a thing. Despite these assurances, Aki becomes somewhat cold for the next day or so, prompting Tetsuro to approach her one evening once Shun is off to bet to discuss the matter. Aki’s a tough cookie to crack, and she doesn’t warm up to the idea of this child spending a month in their home. More importantly, I don’t think she likes the idea of having to take care of a child that isn’t her own for an entire month. Nonetheless, what’s done is done so Aki puts on her bravest face and ends the conversation with a ‘so be it’ attitude.

You can guess where the movie goes from here. The relationship between Shun and Aki is a rocky one at first, but slowly and surely Aki comes around to the boy’s charm and realizes he’s not such a bad kid after all. Maybe a catalyst can occur 2/3 of the way through, really putting their newly discovered friendship to the test, as well as her relationship with Tetsuro. In the end, things should turn out reasonably well for everyone involved. It’s a tried, tested and true narrative that has one over audiences here and around the world in numerous films. M/Other…kind of follows that route, but it does so in its own, cinematically satisfying fashion. Director Suwa probably knows he has a script on hand that doesn’t contain anything particularly original regarding the story’s synopsis (he should know at least, he collaborated on the writing of it), so he plays a game of one upmanship. He’ll play the game differently. Instead of going for forced drama and tired clich├ęd storytelling, he has his own plan to execute. In essence, the movie is a 2 hour and 22 minute hyper realistic drama exploring the morphing dynamics between these three central characters: Aki, Tetsuro and Shun. By hyper-realistic, I refer to what the characters say to one another, how exactly they say it and what directorial style Suwa opts for.

For those of you who thought Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was edited by someone who suffered from epilepsy, then you people can feel right at home. M/Other’s scenes are filmed in the most quiet and simple manner possible. Suwa typically has his camera rest at one spot in the room, whichever room where the discussion takes place. If the camera needs to turn slightly to the right or the left to follow someone or to look at who else is talking, the camera will do so, but no more than that. The camera goes for absolutely no dynamic swooping shots, and edits are kept to a minimum. I think I wrote once here on the message boards how I believe that a cut is a sacred thing (if memory serves me right, I recall having a discussion with sdedalus about the subject a few months ago. Unfortunately I don’t recall in what thread it was, otherwise I’d post a link). If you really, really don’t need to make the cut, why make it at all? The thing is, so few director’s ‘get’ that idea. I’m not saying I hate the way today’s movies are edited (although I do have certain reservations about at least a few editing techniques), but far and few are the director’s who withhold from excessive editing, which I’ve always found to be a fascinating strategy. When a camera rests on a subject, the viewer can contemplate it, many things can cross the viewer’s mind during that 2 minute cut. We’re supposed to be sophisticated enough to think for ourselves, so let that camera rest for a minute damn you! I always appreciate it when that’s the technique a director opts for. If more directors did that, would I cherish the technique as much? I don’t know because they don’t tend to take that chance. Regardless, Suwa let’s the viewer concentrate fully on the dialogue and acting with his passive an watchful camera. I briefly mentioned how the film is very close to resembling a documentary, which is funny because certain edits are done, visually at least, to look like old film footage, possibly from a documentary or an old family video. It doesn’t happen too often, but it struck me every time it occurred.

Speaking a little more about the film’s realistic feel, that’s one of the many reasons I like it so much. The way the characters speak and behave felt very real to me, but all the while I knew that this was a piece of fiction. It could have been made into a documentary, but how many families, apart from the Osborne’s*, want to have their internal dilemmas and arguments filmed on camera for everyone to see? More to the point, the fact that this piece of fiction feels so real appealed to me very much. There’s something massively impressive in the notion that this family drama plays itself out so confidently and to effortlessly. It’s a testament to everyone involved in the project, from the writers to the actors to the director himself. I can imagine that it helped that I was unfamiliar with the talent involved however, although I am reminded of Rachel Getting Married, which elicited a similar reaction from me, notwithstanding the editing technique, which was vastly different in that movie. I think I just enjoy these ridiculously grounded movies, which makes perfect sense since that balances out my enjoyment of other, more fantasy laden films. I applaud a director who can capture something so real on celluloid without it being a documentary. There’s nothing wrong with docs, don’t misinterpret me here, but I admire what Suwa has done here, just like I admired what Jonathan Demme did with his own movie.

Both leads (I don’t think the child playing Shun does enough for him to be a lead) are great. Makiko Watanabe as Aki is pitch perfect. Her struggle is mostly inward but still manifests itself to the outside world on more than one occasion. She does warm up to Shun and spends many a pleasant day with the boy, but also feels like a slave of sorts when her lover Tetsuro must constantly fulfill his role as restaurant manager. He isn’t there as often as he said he would, therefore leaving Aki to spend far more time than anticipated with Shun. But even though she takes a liking to him, the reality is that this isn’t her son (she has never had children) continues to haunt her. She does most of the cooking and cleaning while Tetsuro is on duty, and this ‘slaving away’ grows tiresome. Tiresome because she has never had to double her efforts for an entire family? Because the boy/this family, unit isn’t hers? Because of Testuro’s broken promises? Probably for all three of those reasons and more still. Aki and Tetsuro get along very well with each other for this is made clear in the early goings of the movie, but at some point there is a lack of communication between the two. The reality is that maybe they don’t know each other as well as they thought and hoped they did. Maybe each one is looking for something completely different. In a cruel twist of fate, it may very well be that the arrival of this relatively sweet boy signals the destruction of what Aki and Tetsuro have together. His presence unearths problems they did not even realize they had, problems that may never have reared their ugly heads had that nice, kind, innocent little shit ever showed up. Director Suwa is smart enough not to beat the viewer over the head with any clear but answers, so I won’t provide anymore in this review. Suffice to say that both leads, with their gestures, their voice tones, their ‘yes’ grunts and their ‘no’ grunts, fit the roles perfectly. A lot of the scenes, especially early on, don’t demand much talking from one or the other, but a lot can be implied with a nod or a grunt or a murmur. Acting is much more than delivering lines and this movie shows exactly why.

There is the issue of music, which is used only sparingly throughout, but that arguably carries its own particular connotations as well. What little music there is consists mainly of a violin playing very crookedly, almost enough to shatter glass. The music makes an appearance for only 30 seconds at a time, maybe 3 or 4 times throughout the entire 2h22 film. Why is it played so rarely and why does it sound so unpleasant? I have some theories, but this review is getting a bit out of hand, so I’ll jump to the conclusion: Highly recommended.

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