Tuesday 09 March 2004

About nothing

…so boring despite its intriguing possibilities (Christoper Null)

…might appeal to you as long as you’re willing to accept the ludicrous premise (David Nusair)

…one of the most boring and tedious films I’ve ever seen (Rob McKinnon)

There were 3 main things that were so bad about this film. 1: The way it was filmed, 2: The premise behind it, 3: The execution of this premise. (Amazon reviewer)

They’re talking about Kore’eda Hirokazu’s After Life (Wandafuru raifu), a movie that—like Iwai Shunji’s Love Letter—I never tire of watching.

After Life’s total US gross receipts were $801,985 in 1999, a year when The Sixth Sense grossed $293,501,675. Negative reviews, like the ones I quoted above, were atypical—most critics regarded the film favorably without being wildly enthusiastic.

There are other, better films—classics, for want of a better word—I never tire of watching but After Life and Love Letter exert an emotional pull on me that’s disproportionate to their box office success or critical reception.

Pale diffuse light flooding an open doorwayThe premise of After Life is simple. Every Monday, people who have died walk through an open doorway suffused with pale light into what looks like a derelict boarding school. Each is issued with an ID number and assigned to a counselor who will assist them in preparing for the journey to the other side. Much of the film is taken up with these counseling sessions, which commence with an explanation of the rules:

You’re going to stay here for a week.
Everyone gets a private room. Please feel at home. But while you’re here there’s one thing you must do.
Out of the __ years of your life, we’d like to ask you to choose one memory, the one you remember and cherish most.
There is a time limit. You have three days to decide.
After you choose your memory, our staff will recreate it on film as exactly as possible.
On Saturday we’ll show the films to everyone. The moment the memory comes back to you most vividly, you’ll go on to the other side, taking only that memory.

In an interview with Liza Bear, director Kore’eda recalled that when he was six years old, his grandfather died after a protracted struggle with Alzheimer’s disease:

“I watched him ask my mother when lunch would be served not even one hour after he had just eaten lunch, or calling up the police to ask them to help him get home… And finally he died no longer recognizing me or himself in the mirror. So I have a very powerful memory of fear, thinking that people forget everything just before they die.”

Drawing on his a background as a documentary filmmaker, Kore’eda interviewed 500 ordinary Japanese, asking them which of their worldly memories they would most wish to preserve. About half the 22 deceased souls who arrive at the halfway house at the beginning of the film are played by non-actors whom Kore’eda discovered during the interviews.

“I did not control what they said or give them lines to read; they told their own stories, in their own time and in their own words, and I recorded them on film… The remaining other half of the dead are played by actors, but even among them, only half of them speak dialogue that I gave them.”

Four characters from the film After Life

Shooting on 16mm film stock, frequently with a handheld camera, Kore’eda blends scripted and unscripted dialog, delivered by amateur and professional actors, into an elegiac meditation on death, memory, love, loss, the illusion of filmmaking, Japanese social relationships, and the cost of the Pacific War.

“My goal this time was to record the wonderful things unfolding before me on location and on set,” said Kore-Eda. “I wanted so-called real life to encounter the artifice of film. I was interested in the emotions that would arise from that collision.”

I had no idea, before I started writing this entry, that the cast of After Life included non-actors telling their own stories. The next time I watch the film I might—for a while—play a guessing game, looking for clues as to who is an “amateur” and who is a “professional”. But only for a while. Before long I’ll lose myself again in the joy and sadness of the memories they struggle to recall, taking heart from the emotions that arise from the collision between real life and the artifice of film.

That these emotions are so convincingly evoked is due in no small way to Kore’eda’s knowing reliance on the artifice of documentary film techniques: the soft grainy images, subdued colors, natural (looking) lighting, and occasionally unsteady camera all contribute to the illusory foundation upon which our emotional engagement is constructed.

Or not. The negative responses to After Life are based mainly on two objections: that the film’s premise is ludicrous and the recollections of the characters’ lives are boring. For example, David Nusair:

After Life’s premise is incredibly unappealing – really, who wants to relive the same moment over and over ‘til the end of time? – which makes the movie almost impossible to relate to. And the structure of the movie doesn’t help matters, either. Much of the flick has been shot documentary-style, with the various dead folks talking about their lives and their memories. While some of this is interesting, this much dialogue about nothing by people we couldn’t care less about eventually gets tedious.

Nusair’s response is fascinating: the qualities of the film he dislikes are, for me, fundamental to its success. I love stories that blend fiction and documentary, though that’s got me into trouble before; and I share the Japanese preference for narratives in which plot—central to so much of western storytelling—is highly attenuated.

I’m not suggesting that David Nusair is clueless about movies, just that he’s uninformed about and unsympathetic to this kind of film. In his favor, he appears to have eclectic (rather than predictable) tastes, he has a good understanding of mainstream commercial movies, and—as far as two films I’ve recently seen are concerned—I shared his enthusiasm for 21 Grams and thought he was critical of The Last Samurai for the wrong reasons.

In fact, Nusair’s reviews of those films plus his response to Kore’eda’s first film, Maborosi, suggest why he so much disliked After Life. He writes about 21 Grams:

Part of what makes the film so great is the way it requires the viewer to assemble facts as time progress[es]; 21 Grams has been edited in such a way that we’re constantly jumping through time, but it never becomes confusing.

21 Grams is easily the most emotionally devasting movie to come around in a long while, and though the movie’s mid-section could’ve used tighter editing, there’s no denying that it’s an extremely accomplished piece of work.

And about The Last Samurai:

…we’re nevertheless forced to endure countless sequences featuring Algren chatting with Katsumoto and his family. And while some of that stuff is interesting - helped in great part by Watanabe’s fantastic performance - it finally gets to the point where enough is enough; we get it already.

Having said that, The Last Samurai is still worth seeing primarily for the performances and amazing combat sequences. About an hour into the film, there’s a fight between the Samurai warriors and a group of ninjas that rivals anything in Kill Bill in terms of sheer coolness. And then there’s the final battle between the Japanese army and the Samurai, which is gripping and involving in ways that everything preceeding it is not.

One could deduce from these opinions that David Nusair prefers films that move along at a fast clip and yet, about Kore’eda’s Maborosi, he writes:

There are different types of “good” movies. There are good movies that you enjoy like a rollercoaster ride, and there are good movies that make you think. Maborosi is the latter.

It’s the type of film that, while you’re watching it, you do get drawn in to the complexities of the characters, but the plot takes a backseat. In fact, this film is truly “about nothing”. Once the central character gets settled, we have no further major plot points brought up. The majority of the film follows one character, and how she handles her different emotions of grief, and happiness.

Given that Nusair believes that Maborosi is a Japanese film “about nothing”, it doesn’t take long before the acknowledged master of films about nothing, Ozu Yasujirō, is roped in to support the argument:

The director of the film, a man by the name of Kore-eda Hirokazu has obviously been influenced by another Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. Now, I’ve only seen one film by Ozu, the magnificent Early Spring, but in that movie, the shots are set up the same way as in Maborosi. The camera never moves, and is always a fair distance from the characters, so as [not] to interefere in their lives. Kore-Eda is quite obviously paying homage to Ozu, and, with Maborosi, he has created a film that Ozu could have easily made 50 years ago.

Higashiyama Chieko in Ozu's Tokyo StoryIt is clearly foolhardy—having seen only one film—to make blanket statements about a director’s style. Admittedly, Ozu employed tracking and crane shots far less often than most directors but he did use camera movements throughout his career. Moreover, he frequently brought the audience close to his characters (as in this shot of Higashiyama Chieko in Tokyo Story). It’s neither useful nor interesting to speculate whether Ozu could easily have made Maborosi 50 years ago. What’s important is that Nusair then reveals his lack of understanding of how Ozu and Kore’eda encourage viewers to participate in constructing the meaning of their films:

My only complaint with the film is that it contains many scenes without any dialogue, we are just exposed to what essentially amounts to pretty scenery. During those scenes, my focus completely wavered, and I found myself thinking about how much I was looking forward to Alien Resurrection and would it measure up to the previous three films, etcetera. I think Kore-Eda should have edited some of those scenes down to a minute or two, and not the 5 minutes that they are.

It is precisely in these scenes “without any dialogue”, with this “pretty scenery”, that Kore’eda reveals his debt to Ozu.

In To the Distant Observer, Noël Burch calls them “pillow shots”. Donald Richie, in his book Ozu, refers to them with a variety of terms—transitions, pivotal objects, empty scenes, hiatuses, still lives—suggesting that they function as “containers for our emotions”. Tadao Satō calls them “curtain shots”, noting that the term was first used by the prewar film critic Nanbu Keinosuke. In Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, Kiju Yoshida describes Ozu’s technique as “floating montage”; in other words, “a kind of montage in which limitless meanings float around in deep space”. Ozu, writes Kiju,

consciously inserted shots of unusual images that seemed irrelevant to the film’s story line, causing his viewers to feel uneasy. His method was meant to strongly stimulate their imaginations and spur them to create more meaning for the images seen on the screen. His technique allowed more space for new meanings to emerge.

So when David Nusair suggests that “Maborosi is certainly worth a look, but only if you have the patience to see it through”, he’s saying that Maborosi is one of those “good movies that make you think”, but that it would be a better film if it didn’t make you think so much.

Which brings us back to After Life, with its ludicrous premise and tedious dialogue about nothing by people we couldn’t care less about. But what if you simply accepted the premise? Just as you accepted that Will Hunting is a mathematical genius who works as a janitor at MIT and spends part of his night shift solving the abstruse math challenges that Professor Lambeau leaves on the blackboard. Just as you accepted that the Ring which was forged in the fires of Mt. Doom has the power to control all Middle Earth and can only be destroyed if it is returned to the fires from whence it came.

Where would you be then? In a situation where, together with the 22 deceased souls, you felt encouraged (if not compelled) to choose one memory, the one you remember and cherish most, from all the moments in your life. What could you do but move back and forth between the events unfolding on the screen—as minimal and unsubstantial as they appear to be—and the memories floating up from your subconscious, memories that must in part be prompted by the recollections of the characters in the film? Might you then find yourself feeling close to these people who have managed to find something radiant and beautiful in the most prosaic of everyday events? And might not such a film send you back into your own everyday life with a renewed appreciation of the people and things that populate it?

Although I don’t go to church, I understand and accept the value of going to church, something that Halley Suitt articulates perfectly:

First of all, it’s about going some place on a given day of the week—not work, not Starbuck’s, not the health club—where you meet people of all ages who want to think about spirit. They are not doing spreadsheets, they are not ordering Cafe Americano Venti with extra ice, they are not doing bicep curls—all worthy endeavors I spend time on other days of the week. They are trying to figure out how they might love others better and improve the spirits of those around them, and, perhaps selfishly, but probably not, improve their spirit as a result.

I guess you could say that I worship at the Church of Art about Nothing.

I started out wanting to defend Kore’eda’s After Life not because it needs defending but more because I wanted to mount an argument for films (or books or paintings or photographs) in which “nothing happens” apart from a space opening up that allows us to reflect on what is actually important; art ostensibly “about nothing” which, paradoxically, turns out to be about everything.

But I allowed myself to be distracted by another issue—the fact that someone who lacks even a rudimentary understanding of how to approach modest films like Kore’eda’s Maborosi and After Life (let alone Ozu’s films) can dismiss them out of hand; saying, in effect, “I don’t know the slightest thing about this but pay close attention while I forcefully express my opinion”. Is it my imagination or does the Internet (and do weblogs) encourage this confidence based on ignorance? And do they also encourage a constant demand for attention by/from all of us who can’t/won’t pay attention. I don’t know (which is a polite way of saying “I do know—or rather I’d like to think I know—but I’m not going to belabor the point any longer”).

I do know this though: one of the most valuable qualities of art “about nothing” is that it teaches us to pay more—and demand less—attention.

Empty corridor in Kore'eda's After Life

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Between Sebbo’s digression into the Bloggerhans triumphalism that really isn’t the point of my homeschooling post below at all, and this genteel dustup over in Johnathon Delacour’s always-excellent journal, I’ve found myself fal...

Posted by Long story; short pier on 12 March 2004


After Life is one of those films on my must-see-again list; I saw it with friends when it hit Cinema 21 here in Portland, and it skated through me like some achingly beautiful dream. —What confused me for a moment was that I remembered the reviews being universally positive; the chorus of negativity you dredged up at the beginning rattled me. Luckily, Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/AfterLife-1097893/) is there to reaffirm my memory, and reassure me that, in our opinion of After Life, anyway, we aren't in the minority.

Insofar as the confident ignorance of the internet goes (ignorant triumphalism?) (and how carefully one must tread when you're framed the question like this!), I think it's more that the costs and benefits of this particular sphere (blogo- and otherwise) tend to attract a certain type of person, rather than something inherent to the form which brings this out of its practitioners. —Okay, the difference between the two seemed more stark in my head. There's plenty of room in blogging (and the internet) for quiet "pillow sites" that let you make your own connections; wood s lot, Odd Things in Pitt's Library, insert-your-favorite-photoblog-here, etc. etc. Many of the pioneers of the internet (to trade for a moment in gross stereotypes) were of a certain flavor of geek: and this flavor can be heard explaining something (anything: why proportional representation has no hope in the United States, when you should shift from a variable rate to a fixed rate in your home mortgage, the studio politics that led Keanu Reeves to be cast as John Constantine, why the sink nozzle you've just purchased is actually the second-best of three options you might want to consider, the sociobiological impulse behind your recent crying jag) with great confidence. Opinions are stated forcefully, challenges are met with jeering ridicule, and a lack of experience or expertise is cheerily acknowledged—whether in dorm rooms, dining halls, bars, break rooms, airport lounges, or the internet. Form has followed functions that were brought in from elsewhere, I think.

Now that the foundations have been laid, one can say that blogging in this school begets or encourages more such blogging (because it does), and so the distinction is vaguely moot: either way, here we are: talk is cheap, factoids cheaper, so why not shore up your opinions with a shovelful or two? And pillow sites are, perhaps, underappreciated. But I think the chicken really did come first on this one.

(Of course, any true adept is aware that them what knows don't say, and them what says don't know. So.)

Posted by Kip Manley on 9 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"a lack of experience or expertise is cheerily acknowledged"

You're right, Kip... that pretty much sums it up.

Interestingly, I removed a paragraph I'd written which compared Rotten Tomatoes scores for After LIfe and The Sixth Sense:

After Life scored 78% on the Tomatometer (which measures the number of critics who recommended the film) and received an Average Rating of 6.9/10 (a measure of the "overall quality" based on individual critic scores). The Sixth Sense matched its commercial success with 86% on the Tomatometer with an Average Rating of 7.6/10.

Not that these scores actually mean anything, which is why I ended up editing it out.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 9 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks for your extended comments on "After Life" (and "Maboroshi no hikari"). I fell in love with these at first sight. Regrettably, I missed my (brief) chance to see "After Life" in the theater, because the American trailer was so awful it made me think I wouldn't want to see it. I later saw Maborosi -- due to the linkage with Ozu -- and realized my grievous error.

For those who can play R2 DVDs, I would note that the Japnese releases of both the above films (plus Kore'eda's grossly under-appreciated third feature "Distance") are sub-titled, look vastly better than the US DVDs, have lots of interesting (albeit unsubtitled) extras -- and are reasonably priced (by Japanese DVD standards).

I think that, without a doubt, Kore'eda is among the very best younger directors in the world. He has now also moved into production -- overseeing Kakuto (directed by the punky kid who refuses to make a choice in "After Life) and "Wild Berries" (Hebi ichigo -- directed by one of his previous assistant directors). These have both appeared -- or will soon appear -- on DVD in Japan (with subtitles). Based on reports I've seen, the latter is a bit more closely linked to Kore'eda's own style.

Another young Japanese director, whose films are also very interesting -- but far harder (read, near impossible) to see -- is Naomi Kawase. She is another documentarian turned feature film maker. Her first feature "Moe no Suzaku" (Suzaku) made it to Cannes -- and to video in France. This story of life in a dying town (transportation problems and economic changes make staying there non-viable) is truly wonderful. Alas, her second and third features ("Firefly" and "Shara") are even more obcure. (The latter did show up at Cannes this year, but because it screened on the last day, after the American and British contingents had quit watching films -- it garnered only French reviews, all very positive).

Another film, with a somewhat similar sensibility HAS surprisingly shown up on DVD (in the US) despite not even any token theatrical screenings. "Ichiban utsukushii natsu" (called "Firefly Dreams" in English). This anomalous film (Japanese in language and tone -- but made by an expatriate Welshman) is well-written, well-shot and well-acted. It reminds me a bit of the work of Jun Ichikawa (another wonderful director whose Ozu-inspired work is completely unavailable in the West -- and largely unavailable in Japan). This slow-paced tale of a wayward young woman bonding with a now increasingly forgetful elder (who seems to have been rather wayward back in her own youth) is worth checking out -- since you (like me) seem to appreciate gentle, slow-paced Asian films. ;~}

Posted by Michael Kerpan on 10 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I can't comment on the film because I didn't see it (I was put off by some of those negative reviews, and in particular the idea that you'd spend eternity with only one memory, which seemed not only ludicrous but unnecessary -- why not have people pick one especially luminous memory as a necessary gateway to the afterlife or something?). But it bothers me that both Jonathon and Kip respond to criticism of it with blasts at "someone who lacks even a rudimentary understanding" and "ignorant triumphalism." Isn't it possible reasonable people disagree about the merits of the film?

(Needless to say, I'm much more interested in it after reading Jonathon's rave.)

Posted by language hat on 10 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Nah, not responding to people who diss the film with such broadsides: we're throwing our hundredweight of metal at people who airily expound an expert's opinion on something while in the same sentence copping to having had no experience with crucial aspects of the thing in question--as occasioned by Nusair's attempt to link Kore'eda with Ozu in his review. He knows Kore'eda has been influenced by Ozu (it's not clear whether he inferred this factoid or picked it up from elsewhere, but it's easy to imagine he picked it up); he's seen one Ozu movie; he finds some aspects in the one Kore'eda movie he's seen that are similar; he thinks he's spotted the linkage. Jonathon, rather more well-versed in the directors in question, pointedly disagrees. --It's not Nusair's opinion of After Life that's in question; it's his flubbing the point of the relationship between two directors--his opinion isn't informed, and in forcefully stating it, he acknowledges that it isn't informed. Weird, when you parse it like that, but all too common hereabouts. Why should that be?

And if it's a broadside I'm delivering, the cannons are pointed at me, too: Lord knows I've been the explainin' geek more times than I'd want to look back on with any but a wincing face. (Which is probably why I didn't sniffily declaim Nusair a pseudointellectual and leave it at that.) --It's easy to blame the form, and frown at the ease with which we can use Google and newsfeeds and blogs to scrape up contextless facts, and sure, those tools make it easier to whip up a cocktail-party scaffolding, no matter the field. But you've picked at the enablers and not the root cause, I think; if I were so inclined, I'd whip up a theory about how we're all infovores now, and promiscuous fact-dropping demonstrates one's prowess in securing rich hunting grounds; I'd say something about how, in a social gift economy where knowledge is power, generously offering spontaneous explanations and solutions generates a lot of whuffie. So it's an easy habit to fall into, and a bad thing for honest journalism, and endemic not just to blogs and the internet but news and infotainment all over the mediaspheric map. --But I'd be explaining stuff, theorizing on a terribly thin branch of praxis, and that would be too ironic for words, so I won't.

At least, that's where I was going, at not-quite-midnight, with paint fumes still filling my nostrils. --But: the way I remember the flick, the central premise as cited above is being misunderstood. It wasn't that you spent eternity with nothing but this one memory from your life; it was that this one memory was the one thing you'd take with you into your next life, and whether that was some garden-variety reincarnation or more of a drop-in-the-ocean apotheosis was rather deliberately left unclear. Basically, you're creating your deja vu moment: the one thing in whatever's to come that will make you stop and shiver and say hey, wait; hey, someone just walked over my grave-- And I thought that was a terribly beautiful idea, even if my selfish "I" finds reincarnation as it's usually expounded rather useless. (A slender moment of human grace, in the face of some awful cosmic certainty? The thing that makes you /you/ must be destroyed before you go on, but we've eked out this compromise with the machinery of fate: you can keep this one small moment. Now, choose...)

But I am talking about a movie I saw years ago, that left vague, dreamlike wisps of itself in my fallible memory. I couldn't tell you who's explaining without experience, here: me, rebuilding a model to fit my expectations, or the reviewers I think have mistated the movie's conceit, who might all have grabbed the same talking point from a badly done synopsis in the press-kit for the American release. As a for instance. A possible explanation. Could have happened that way. For all I know.

Posted by Kip Manley on 10 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Glad to see your post on AfterLife.
Years ago I found AfterLife at a Blockbuster video store, a pleasant surprise.
AfterLife is definetely a conceptually daring and stylistically innovative film just like
the Russian Ark. Both films manage to capture the soul of National characters by using
ingenius conceptual devices, make viewers experience time, history and collective memory.
Documentary elements add freshness and immediacy to the subject matters.
Here is my old web works featuring Maboroshi.
Enter here and there are two pages on Maboroshi following this movie curtain pages.

Posted by Beau Travail on 10 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

> It wasn't that you spent eternity with nothing but
> this one memory from your life; it was that this
>one memory was the one thing you'd take with you
>into your next life

I think you recoillect (and understand) the premise quite well. As I recall, most reviewers MIS-stated (or misunderstood) this.


Posted by Michael Kerpan on 10 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Well, the revised explanation of the premise certainly removes most of the ludicrousness and makes me more willing to put aside my reluctance and see it. But as to "Nusair's attempt to link Kore'eda with Ozu in his review": I just don't see it as deserving the heavy artillery. It's not like he's inventing something irrelevant; Kore'eda *was* influenced by Ozu. (According to what I've read here! I know nothing, nothing!) Having only seen one Ozu movie, he may have misstated the influence, but come on -- at least he admitted the extent of his ignorance (a step which most of us probably omit more often than not). I can't help but feel that if he had raved about the movie, you and Jonathon would be a lot more forgiving of his ignorance. And the main point, as you acknowledge with your "the cannons are pointed at me, too," is that we *all* do this, and we must if we're to teach and learn. No one can know all relevant details about anything; it can be a lifetime's work to know them about *one* thing. There's always somebody more expert than you to point out some crucial fact you've missed. So what's the solution, lifelong silence? I don't think so. As communicatin', story-tellin', explainin' humans, we're constantly talking out of our asses, hoping that we've grabbed at least some of the important facts and not omitted anything that will fatally vitiate our argument -- or that if we have, nobody will notice. I spent much of my college existence pretending I knew more than I did about philosophy, history, god knows what; it was the price of admission into intense discussions in which I gradually came to actually know some of that stuff. Too much modesty and humility is a bad strategy. That's why I'm generally forgiving of people's mistakes and omissions in areas I know a lot about, as long as they're willing to accept criticism and learn something. It's belligerent ignorance, know-nothingism, that infuriates me, and I don't see that here.

Posted by language hat on 11 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Michael, thanks for the pointer to the Japanese versions of Kore'eda's films. I have the US DVD of Maborosi and the image quality doesn't do justice to the film. I've been watching After Life on VHS (SBS Television screened it a few years ago) and was about to order the US DVD from Amazon. Now I'll look for the Japanese version of it, plus the other two.

I was aware of Naomi Kawase, again via SBS which screened Moe no Suzaku but I haven't seen anything else she's directed.

And Firefly Dreams does look like the kind of film I'd very much like -- Amazon have it scheduled for release on March 16. (I saw a Korean film a few months ago called The Way Home about a young boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother -- it was well made without being outstanding.)

Beau Travail, I hadn't thought of the formal similarities between After Life and Russian Ark because I didn't get to see the latter film, although it had a very successful season in Sydney. I'll rent the DVD.

Language Hat, I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this. When you say "we *all* do this" (i.e. make confident assertions based on little or no first hand knowledge or experience), you may be correct though I have to say I see little evidence of it on your own site -- either in your posts or the comments they elicit.

I'll note in passing that your reluctance to see After Life was based mainly on an erroneous explanation of the premise, confidently offered by reviewers who either liked or disliked the film.

As for my swatting a fly with a sledge hammer, I beg to differ. My criticisms of David Nusair's reviews were directed not at a college student trying to break into a conversation but towards someone who has reviewed hundreds of films online, often perceptively and usually in the most forthright terms. My feeling was: if he can dish it out, he should be able to take it too. As it happens, I was correct. Yesterday I received a warm email from David Nusair -- Google had already indexed the post! In my reply, I asked for permission to quote his email in a comment and he generously agreed:

"I was pleasantly surprised to find your analysis of my reviews of After Life and Maborosi.

"I just wanted to let you know that I found your comments to be quite insightful and far less critical than I would've been. Maborosi was one of my first reviews, and - re-reading it today - it's just awful.

"Anyway, my opinion of After Life hasn't changed, but you made a number of intriguing points that almost (I said _almost_) make me want to give it another viewing."

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 11 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I liked "The Way Home" overall, but found it a bit contrived. I think you should find "Firefly Dreams" more to your liking. ;~}

Kore'eda's "Distance" is by far his most "difficult" film so far. Even a lot of Kore'eda fans (such as there are) rejected this out of hand. I found myself mystified but intrigued after my first viewing -- and watched it again the next night.

Going back to Korean films, I've noted a number of excellent directors whose work shows clear signs of having studied (and understood) Ozu. It really is interesting that a director dead for 50 years should be producing producing so many spiritual heirs so long after his death.

Posted by Michael Kerpan on 11 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

The two films are unique and they don't share any formal similarities.
Both are experimental in approach and the end result are
meditation on the souls of the Russian culture and for Afterlife the souls
of post WWII Japanese culture.
The use of the camera is unique in both. The directors invite the audience
into the scene as if in a dream.
There is a French film on Proust "Time Regained" that tried to get this effect.
I enjoyed the commentary on the Russian Ark DVD more than the movie.

Posted by Beau Travail on 12 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Broadsides and flies: while I certainly acknowledge that "everybody does it" ("make confident assertions based on little or no first hand knowledge or experience," to use Jonathon's phrase), some of us sometimes do it better than others at other times. Hat's right: it's impossible to get anywhere without doing it, but it can be done well, with generosity and perspective. --Thinking about it, I think it's as simple as mistaking the map for the thing mapped: on the one hand, there's a way of asserting, confidently if with little or no first-hand knowledge or experience, that this is the model I've made of the thing in question, and here's how that model works; that's maybe subtly but crucially different from stating (with little to no etc.) this is the thing in question, and here's how it works, darn it. I'm much more inclined to charity toward the former, and Nusair's (early) review was an example of the latter--and while I might have let it slide if he'd agreed with me, his not doing so was a keyhole into making models of a broader idea and kicking them around to see if they worked. So:

"Carronades, you may say; but thirty-two pounder carronades! We can take any French sloop afloat, for these are your genuine smashers–we could tackle a thirty-six-gun frigate, if only we could get close enough."

"By this same argument of proximation you could also set about a three-decker, a first-rate, at six inches; or two, indeed, if you could wedge yourself between them and fire both sides. But believe me, my dear, it is a fallacious argument, God forbid. How far do these carronades of yours fling their vast prodigious missiles?"

"Why, you must engage within pistol shot if you want to hit what you point them at; but at yard-arm to yard-arm, oh, how they smash through the oak!"

--Sorry. Reading O'Brian again. Forgive me...

Posted by Kip Manley on 12 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I like your model analogy very much, and you've quite won me over with your O'Brian quotes, my dear Kip. You are up to your God-damn-ye capers again, I see!

Posted by language hat on 12 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"Afterlife" has been my favorite film since I saw it, displacing my previously favorite film "Wings of Desire". I saw it in the theater and as soon as it came out on DVD, I bought it. I lend it to everyone I know.

I love the setting, which reminds me of the school I worked in when I lived in Japan. I love the comraderie of the staff, which also reminds me of my coworkers in Japan. But most of all I love the range of Japanese people which defy any common stereotype, any "they-all-look-alike" characterizations.

The premise of the film provide Kore'eda the stage to display a variety of Japanese lives, of ordinary lives, and zero in on a defining moment for each. It never occurred to me that anyone would find this movie slow, or boring, or unrealistic. It's a poem, a song, to the Japanese people. And yet, each character is archetypal--can be related to outside of Japanese culture. I hadn't thought of it being a Japanese "Russian Ark", but, yeah, sort of like that. Maybe I like it better than "Russian Ark" because I'm more familiar with Japan than Russia.

Posted by M Sinclair Stevens on 22 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

A Japanese Russian Ark?! OK, now I definitely want to see it.

Posted by language hat on 23 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"an elegiac..." not "a elegiac"


In Berkeley we had a new kitchen crafted by masters. Nicholas and his partner had learned carpentry from Japanese temple builders. They were of the persuasion that first you find the right trees for the site. Timber for the north wall will be from trees that grew on the north slope -- that sort of thing... it has more to do with practical matters like the grain of the wood than it has to do with any metaphysical nonsense like the Chinese art of feng shui.

The house was old and had settled on its foundation. No angles were right angles and no ceilings were planes parallel to the floors. So it was good that the carpenters who were rebuilding the kitchen were trained in the use of Japanese hand tools. http://www.hidatool.com/kezurou-kai/sharpenblade.html

The green marble for the back splash and the island had been rescued from the old Crocker Bank building in San Francisco. Nicholas polished it by hand. The cabinets were maple and the counters were a green formica that matched the marble and had maple nosing. The trim was immaculately joined, and looking at the ceiling you wouldn't know that one end of the room was fully three inches higher than the other end, the crown molding was so cunningly proportioned.

When at the end of the project, we looked around and could find no flaw, none, Nicholas took a power drill and put a hole in the counter near the sink. Then he trimmed a piece of hard maple to fit the hole and tapped it into place.

"Nothing should be perfect," he said.

Posted by fp on 31 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)


Thanks for picking up (and pointing out) the typo. Ugh!

The brother of my first Japanese girlfriend -- he was a builder -- thought seriously about coming to Australia to live. He visited but abandoned the idea when he realized that hardly anyone here would be prepared to pay for the kind of craftsmanship you describe nor would he be able to find tradesmen who could work to his standards.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 31 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"Nothing should be perfect"

And yet you want an imperfection in the post fixed. Interesting.

Posted by language hat on 1 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Margaret Cho has something fun to say about
After Life, posted just now - 4/23.

Posted by Beau Travail on 24 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (spam)]

Posted by mada on 26 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour