Scientists estimate that the last Ice Age, which lasted roughly two-and-a-half million years, ended about 10,000 years ago. Glaciers covered the Earth, eventually withdrawing northward at a rate of (at most) inches a day, a process requiring millennia. And still it is possible to imagine, on some bright day around 200,000 B.C., one of these inconceivably massive mountains of ice nudging its neighbor and remarking, "Well, sure, I'm no speed demon. But that Japanese film Maborosi? Now there's one slow sumbitch...."
The first fictional feature from documentarian Hirokazu Kore-eda centers around Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), a woman in her twenties haunted by anxieties about death. The film opens with Yumiko's dream of her childhood: She runs after her grandmother, who is heading home to die; on the same path she spots a boy named Ikuo, riding a bicycle.
When Yumiko awakes, we discover that Ikuo is her husband; he indeed rides a bike, but we never know how many other elements of the opening dream have real-life counterparts. Nonetheless, after a few scenes of domestic bliss, Ikuo (sans bike) is run over by a train. No reason is given, but the circumstances suggest suicide.
Despite her responsibilities to Yuichi, her infant son, Yumiko not unexpectedly becomes lethargic and depressive -- a condition the film itself has long since embraced. Several years pass (in a rare moment of mercy, director Kore-eda doesn't present them in real time) and Yumiko moves to a seaside village to marry Tamio (Takashi Naitoh), a widower with a young daughter, Tomoko. Things seem all right, but Yumiko still worries that those close to her will die.
One day, Yumiko comes upon a funeral. It's nobody she knows. She finally expresses some emotion, asking her new hubby why his predecessor would have committed suicide. A lot of very droll but uncomplimentary responses leap to mind, but Tamio, waxing profound, says in so many words (and we do mean so many) a bunch of deep and poetic stuff that adds up to "That's life, punkin! Let's go inside and wrassle up some ramen for the kids!"
For the final scene, we turn you over to the film's official synopsis: "It is spring -- Tamio is teaching Yuichi to ride a bicycle, and Tomoko is helping. Tamio's father is sitting on the porch watching them. Yumiko comes over to join him. She says, 'It's getting warm, isn't it?' Pausing for a moment, he replies, 'It certainly is,' as the children's laughter echoes through the village." Roll credits.
If you think that description is dull, you should see the film.
Despite no particular visual talents, Kore-eda is a director who seems to feel that, if a shot is good at 30 seconds -- and it probably wasn't -- it'll be four times as good at two minutes. He chooses to lovingly linger on every immobile establishing shot, long after the audience has had an opportunity to examine each and every detail. Nor is he concerned with adequate lighting: At one juncture, he holds on an interior shot of Yumiko's bedroom for over a minute, even though no one is talking or moving, and there's only a crack of light. In daytime scenes, when he can't figure out a way to blot out the sun, he keeps the camera at such a distance that we can barely discern the "action," let alone such trivial details as facial expressions.
Esumi's performance doesn't help much: Her face is almost completely impassive, as best we can tell from those rare moments when it's lit well enough and framed closely enough to be identifiable.
This is Art with a capital "A": It provides its minimal edification by punishing the audience with the rhythms of real life ... as experienced on a muggy day ... somewhere in the middle of nowhere ... under the influence of Thorazine. I would never have been able to stay sensate through the press screening, were it not for the gang of speed freaks in the audience, their bloodstreams bubbling with methamphetamine. The constant racket of their heads banging against the floor, as, one by one, they uncontrollably lapsed into a deep slumber, was just enough to keep me alert.
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. With Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitoh, Tadanobu Asano and Midori Kiuchi.
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