Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)

The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.

ディスタンス Distance (2001)

There’s a very strange tone to this film, almost apologetic and dedramatised, and I wonder if it’s not as a way to deal with a very upsetting subject and the way it frames that story. It’s about an apocalyptic cult who has poisoned Tokyo’s water supply (which feels close enough to reality to be believable), but told from the point of view of the relatives of the cult members reconvening three years after the attacks, rather than their victims. They drive to the remote rural location of the cult’s compound to honour their dead relatives, but when their car is stolen, they are forced to spend the night in the cult’s building, long since abandoned. As they spend time here with the surviving member of the cult (Tadanobu Asano), one who had turned his back on them just before their attack, we start to get a feeling for some of the way the relationships are playing out. We also get flashbacks revealing these family members with their relatives, the cult members, just before the event took place, though there’s less of the kind of messianic zeal that you might expect, just a lot of very quiet conversations about the Earth and a general sense of slow withdrawal from connectedness with the rest of society. The film as whole plays out at a very quiet, slow pace, dominated by handheld camera and always framed by the presence of nature. I wanted to like it a lot more, but there are certainly continuities one can trace between this and Koreeda’s other films, in the stillness of the mise en scène, and the sense of grief permeating all its characters.

Distance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki 山崎裕; Starring Arata Iura 井浦新 [as “Arata”], Yusuke Iseya 伊勢谷友介, Susumu Terajima 寺島進, Yui Natsukawa 夏川結衣, Tadanobu Asano 佐藤忠信; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank, London, Saturday 27 April 2019.

花よりもなほ Hana Yori Mo Naho (Hana, 2006)

An almost sweetly childlike film set against a period backdrop, which builds itself around an (eager, but not very good) young samurai, Soza (Junichi Okada), who feels he needs to avenge the death of his father. He lives in a dilapidated slum (during the Edo period of Tokyo’s history, in the early 18th century), and Koreeda’s filmmaking seems to be more interested in the lives of all the people in the slum, largely built around short scenes flitting between these different characters and their lives. Into the background is woven in the famous tale of the 47 ronin, a frequently filmed incident about a group of masterless samurai avenging the death of their leader, which underpins the kinds of behaviour that Soza feels compelled to follow, but doesn’t appear to have the constitution to actually do. And so we end up with this rather lovely tale about those on the lowest rungs of society, about bonds between fathers (and father-surrogates) and children, about looking out for one another and creating a community. It feels a little shaggy and discursive, but there are plenty of fine performances, and a rich seam of humour throughout.

Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki 山崎裕; Starring Junichi Okada 岡田准一, Rie Miyazawa 宮沢りえ, Tadanobu Asano 佐藤忠信, Jun Kunimura 國村隼; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank, London, Thursday 18 April 2019.

空気人形 Kuki Ningyo (Air Doll, 2009) [certificate 18]

This Koreeda film seems to have a greater spread of critical opinion than many of his works, and I suppose it must be the way it deals with intimacy, specifically sexual intimacy, which is rather unusual amongst his films. That it’s about a sex doll come to life — and yes, of course it’s based on a manga comic book — already puts it amongst some rather insalubrious company (exploitation films, weird sophomoric American 80s sex comedies, et al.). Still, given the premise, its execution is about as good as one could hope, and it certainly isn’t a slouch in the technical departments. The camera (of acclaimed cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing) sort of hovers and floats through every scene, as if borne on air, at one point lifting with its protagonist to bob around an apartment.

Like many of Koreeda’s films, the central character is just one of many he gives screen time to, so there’s a community of misfits and outcasts who are organised in the vicinity of a local video shop, and whose lives we periodically glimpse. If the movement of Nozomi’s story isn’t always as uplifting as the camerawork, that’s not the case for all the stories, and bloody tragedy combines with a mysterious form of rebirth by the end. In the central role, Bae Doona is (as ever) excellent, and it marks her as quite the actor to be able to find subtlety and nuance in an, er, air doll. I suppose there are things that don’t work, and I’d be quite keen to read trans or feminist critics deal with this piece in terms of the way it deals with body image, literal body modifications, male desire and objectification. It feels to me as if the film is engaging with these in some interesting ways, and I’d be keen to revisit it in another 10 years to see how it holds up.

Air Doll film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和 (based on the manga ゴーダ哲学堂 空気人形 by Yoshiie Goda 業田良家); Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Bae Doona 배두나, Arata Iura 井浦新 [as “Arata”], Itsuji Itao 板尾創路; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank, London, Tuesday 23 April 2019.

三度目の殺人 Sandome no Satsujin (The Third Murder, 2017) [certificate 15]

This is not a bad film by any means: it’s a well-acted legal thriller in which a lawyer defending a man who has admitted to murder, tries to figure out what really happened. The drama comes in as the lawyer moves from a cavalier disregard for matters of ‘truth’ (the most important thing is initially for him what is most legally effective in each case) to being drawn into the mystery of the crime, as he tries to figure out the man he’s representing, whose testimony constantly shifts. No, this is a perfectly solid film, it’s just not really playing to the strength of Hirokazu Koreeda’s filmography thus far. There’s a family drama buried in there, but it’s never more than hinted at, and not particularly effectively developed. It’s a shame, because there’s plenty going on, it just comes across as a lot of shots of the lawyer and his defendant talking to one another.

The Third Murder film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和 (based on the manga ゴーダ哲学堂 空気人形 by Yoshiie Goda 業田良家); Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto 瀧本幹也; Starring Masaharu Fukuyama 福山雅治, Koji Yakusho 橋本広司, Suzu Hirose 広瀬すず; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 30 March 2018.



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