Review by Anna Bak-Kvapil
Posted on 29 March 2011
Source 35mm print
Boasting a robust slate of films already approved by Sundance, Cannes, Rotterdam and Toronto, the 2011 New Directors/New Films festival sets expectations high for its 40th anniversary. Some choices, like director Dennis Villeneuve’s tricky, politically opaque Incendies (Canada’s entry for the 2011 Academy Awards) and Daniel and Diego Vega’s Peruvian character study Octubre (Cannes 2010 Un Certain Regard winner), live up to their reputations. Others, like Anne Sewitsky’s Norwegian comedy of re-marriage, Happy Happy (Sundance 2011 Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema winner) and opening night film Margin Call, a hokey drama about the 2008 market crash, starring heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, fall disappointingly flat. There isn’t much in the way of levity or eye candy to be found, favored themes being the melancholy dreariness of daily life and the horrors of political unrest. (With so many selections sharing the same brownish gray color palette, I began to wonder if the projector simply hadn’t been cleaned in a while.) The most high profile films have imminent theatrical release dates, but some of the best entries in the festival are among the least heralded, including the Japanese comedy Hospitalité, and the French coming of age tale Belle Epine. Accordingly, the focus of reviews here will be on the good – and the not so good – in New Directors/New Films selections currently lacking U.S. distribution.
Half an hour into Hospitalité, a tall blond woman wrapped in a towel walks from one doorway to another and breaks the assumed reality of the film wide open. In what seemed to be a hushed portrait of a Japanese family, the appearance of a Western woman of swimsuit model stature is as unexpected as a unicorn. Young director Koji Fukada is expert at crafting such moments where routine is turned topsy turvy through a sudden visual joke, his surreal brand of comedy relying on an accumulation of scenes of daily life to emphasize the incongruity of interruption.
Unabashedly riffing on Ozu, Hospitalité is set in a hermetic Tokyo neighborhood where the streets echo with the chirping of crickets. A static camera captures composed shots of trains and trees waving in the breeze. Tired husbands and gossipy neighbors interact with solemnity and politesse. A respectable two story house is populated by a family that includes Kobayashi Mikio, his new wife Natsuko, his divorced sister Seiko and his little girl, Eriko, the child of his first wife.
The house also contains the family’s livelihood, two hulking printing presses that wheeze as they pump out bureaucratic ephemera. Eriko has lost her green parakeet named Pea, and her young stepmother helps her put up an ad for the bird around the area. Soon, Kagawa, a swarthy and mysterious character, appears at their house with the flyer in hand. He vaguely mentions seeing the bird in some trees near the train station, and identifies himself as the son of the man who loaned the family money to start their printing business. Based on this dubious claim, Kobayashi allows him to establish himself in a spare room when the printing assistant, somewhat suspiciously, falls ill.
Tall blond Annabelle turns out to be Kagawa’s unlikely wife, who says she is from Brazil, or Bosnia, depending on the day. Annabelle is blank and weird, sometimes recalling a Stepford wife, at other times an unconcerned child, but never a logical human being. She continues to create visual dissonance, as when, naked from the waist up, she leans out an open window over polite Japanese women bidding each other good morning. Natsuko says of her behavior, “people are starting to spread rumors.” She loosens things up in the house, however, and soon Kobayashi is allowing himself to be seduced, Seiko is coming home so drunk that she forgets to take her shoes off on the tatami mats, and Natsuko responds to the attention of a handsome customer who sings in a band. Under the pressure of Kagawa and his wife, the family’s duty bound lives are revealed as a façade.
Kagawa invites more “friends” to live in the printer’s house, a blur of youth hostel types ranging from muscular black men to puka shell-wearing frat boys. Their materialization has something to do with the trafficking of illegal immigrants, but many of the travelers seem to think the house is a cheap hotel. They joyfully accept the long lines for the bathroom with rice paper doors, and throw a party that culminates in a loud conga line of kids whooping it up in the street. But the Westerners stretch the fabric of reality with their presence, and are eventually forced to disperse out into the larger world.
Hospitalité places the Japanese social code under a microscope and suggests that while small moments of connection between Japanese and Westerners are possible, relationships refuse to work in the long term. Ultimately, Westerners are destructive rather than helpful, attractive, but nonsensical. The family has grown to like the Westerners, even to value their volatility, but Kobayashi and Natsuko don’t miss their guests. Hospitalité presents the clash of cultures from a sly and bizarre perspective, and drops its narrative strands at a point that suggests everyone is happiest in their own secure bubbles.