Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

Naomi Kawase’s Shara by Ian Johnston

Naomi Kawase’s Shara by Ian Johnston What a coincidence that, at the very moment that I have been thinking about what films defined the last decade for me, news should come of Robin Wood’s death. When he writes, in his essay “The Seaweed-Gatherer,” of what makes greatness in a film, this seems to me to offer as good a definition as any of what we should be looking for – certainly, what I have been looking for – in any list of the great films of the 2000s:

Great art is the product of a sensitive intelligence deeply involved with life. […] One admires a film as one admires a poem, a painting, a novel, a piece of music: when one makes contact with the work through a searching and guiding intelligence (by which I mean much more than intellect) of the artist, and experiences that shock of simultaneous empathy and enlightenment, the sense at once of novelty and recognition, as if one has just been brought to awareness of something one has always known.

The Leavisite seriousness that Wood brought to his film criticism is also apparent, whether conscious or not, in the first Best of the Decade list to come out, the TIFF Cinematheque’s poll conducted by James Quandt of over sixty film curators, historians, archivists and programmers.1 Here is a list of films and filmmakers of serious intellectual, emotional and aesthetic depth, 2 which is in itself a rejoinder to the predictable complaints that have since been spinning round the blogosphere of “Why no American films?” For the fact remains that, for all the great work that has come out of American cinema this decade – principally to my mind Zodiac, Last Days, Wendy and Lucy, Punch-Drunk Love, and The Darjeeling Express – America, with the infantilism of its mainstream production and the dull blandness of its “independent” sector, no longer registers as what is at the peak of cinema today. Of course, it does register as a dominating economic force, which, along with the general decline/collapse in arthouse distribution, means that opportunities for seeing and even reading about the best work in current cinema are so limited. In fact, personally I’ve never even seen English-subtitled versions of two of my favourite films of the 2000s, Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room and Naomi Kawase’s Shara.

But the aim of this essay is to focus on one film that can help define what cinema in this decade meant for me. What, then, were the 2000s? Jia, Weerasethakul, Hong Sang-soo, Kora-eda, Edward Yang, Hou (in spite of a lack of inspiration on his home ground, i.e. Millennium Mambo and Three Times), Tsai, and the continued vitality of Asian cinema. The excitement offered by the Romanians’ version of long-take realism. The continued strength of the work of auteurs who cemented their reputation in the nineties: the Dardennes, Sokurov, Claire Denis, Béla Tarr (even if L’intrus and The Man From London are both failures which point to the dangers that their directors’ aestheticism can lead to.) Remarkable one-offs like Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence. The French Old Guard: Chabrol, Rivette, and above all Godard, the greatest director alive today, as his two masterpieces from this decade, Éloge de l’amour and Notre musique, clearly show. And two great directors that have come to the fore in the 2000s, Lucrecia Martel, whose subtleties have been criminally underappreciated if not (The Headless Woman) misunderstood; and Pedro Costa (soon, thanks to Criterion/Eclipse in the US and Second Run in the UK, to be truly discovered by the English-speaking world) whose In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth are works of the deepest humanity allied to a mastery of form that make most of the rest of contemporary cinema simply irrelevant.

If I choose now to highlight Naomi Kawase’s Shara as one of my great films of the decade, it’s as much in order to rescue it from undeserved neglect. How many of those reading this now have seen the film, or even heard of it? Kawase has been making films since her student work in 8mm in the late 1980s, and her first feature Suzaku won the Caméra d’or at Cannes in 1997. That was a delicate and restrained portrayal of the disintegration over many years of a family suffering from the economic decline of life in the countryside. Underlying this was a strong basis in Kawase’s documentary work, which can at times prove more interesting and aesthetically challenging than her feature films. This is certainly true when contrasting her documentary shorts like Letter from a Yellow Cherry Blossom and Shadow with a later feature film, the dull and banal The Mourning Forest, which inexplicably won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2007.

But Shara is another case again. This dazzling film is set among the traditional back alleys of Kawase’s native Nara, an ancient capital of Japan and now a small provincial city, and it deals with a story of familial loss. One summer’s day two brothers, Shun and Kei, are playing a running game through the alleys around their home when Kei is suddenly lost to view. No explanation is ever offered of his disappearance, and there’s merely a passing reference to the discovery of his body five years later (the time setting for the bulk of the film).

The film is a portrayal of a coming to terms with this loss, on an individual, familial, and communal level. Teenage Shun is still devastated by the disappearance of his brother and his own release from his mourning comes through his completion of a painting of his brother, an imaginary portrait of his brother as he would have been. It comes too through his developing relationship with his girlfriend-in-the-making, the calm and resilient Yu. There’s almost a comic undercutting of the intensity of Shun’s position when we learn with Yu of her own story of loss. Yu’s “mother” confesses to an incestuous feeling for her own brother (though it’s never indicated that there was a sexual dimension to this) and that her brother, Yu’s father, vanished after her birth; but Yu simply shrugs it all off.

Shun’s father parallels Shun’s use of art when he essentially draws a line with the past: in a work of calligraphy he writes the characters for “dark/shadow” and “light”. It’s an embracing holistic vision, one that he has already promoted in the preparations for the traditional Basara festival that he’s involved in. At a meeting, which all the film’s main characters are present at, Shun’s father emphasises the importance of the experience of all the participants in the festival, spectators and performers; and this is what Kawase shows us when she portrays the festival performance.

The Basara festival forms a thrilling climax to the film. To a repetitive, rhythmic beat, Yu and the other performers chant, swing their bodies, and pound their feet on the street, caught up in the pure physical joy of the moment until everything literally explodes in a sudden torrential downpour of rain that soaks performers and spectators alike. There’s an element of religious rite here, a communal acting-out of the symbolic cleansing and release that Shun’s family undergoes for themselves in the following scene – the concluding one of the film’s story – when Shun’s mother (played by Kawase herself) gives birth to another son.

The cyclical nature of this – one son lost at the beginning of the film, another brought into life at the end – is literally enacted in Shara’s remarkable camera style. It’s a camera that’s constantly on the move, never tied to one character or one point of view, forever circling and exploring the contours of this world. Again and again, the camera takes flight, relentlessly pursuing characters down the meandering, interconnecting side alleys of the neighbourhood, sometimes – as when it follows the two brothers in their running game, or again when Shun and Yu race back to his home in the latter part of the film – at a breakneck pace. And the end of the film returns us through camera movement to its very beginning, a reverse movement of the camera’s opening exploration of the rooms of the combined workshop-family home. The difference now is that when Shun and Kei’s voices are again heard, it registers as a ghostly echo from the past, and this time the camera bursts the physical confines of the home: a door opens with a blast of light and the camera swings outside, seemingly in mid-air, to slowly rise up, higher and higher, to look down, in one final transcendental gesture, on this world now at peace with itself.

  1. The top ten were: 1. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul). 2. Platform (Jia Zhang-ke). 3. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke). 4. Beau travail (Claire Denis). 5. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai). 6. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul). 7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu); Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr). 8. Éloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard). 9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu). 10. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas). 1999’s Beau travail is, of course, a bit of a cheat to turn up in a poll of the 2000’s.
  2. Though personally I’d omit the emperor-with-no-clothes Reygadas, who’s moved from the interesting if derivative sub-Tarkovskian Japón, through the meretricious Battle In Heaven, to the complete collapse of Silent Light, as empty a display as you can get of the current international festival-approved long-take format.


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