"3 Faces" - Jafar Panahi (2018)

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is famous not only for his outstanding films but also for his heroic struggles to freely express himself in the face of an oppressive dictatorship.  After the Iranian government violently suppressed the Green Movement’s peaceful protests of the controversial 2009 Presidential elections, Panahi (along with other associates, including Mohammad Rasoulof) was arrested for trying to make a documentary film concerning those events.  In 2010 he was convicted of essentially treasonous behaviour and sentenced to six years in prison and also given a 20-year ban on engaging in any filmmaking activities and on leaving the country.  Nevertheless and despite the severity of this sentence, Panahi has somehow managed to continue making films, albeit under extremely constrained conditions.  His recent films This is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2014), and Taxi Tehran (2015) were basically all shot within single living enclosures (in Taxi Tehran’s case, inside a single taxicab).  All three of these films were interesting not only for their subject matter but also as experiments in novel cinematic expression.

Now Panahi has come out with a fourth film since his 2010 arrest, 3 Faces (Se Rokh, 2018).  This features a wider degree of spatial latitude, presumably because Panahi’s six-year prison sentence, which was apparently served as a house interest, had now come to an end.  Thus the restrictions on Panahi’s movements had now apparently been relaxed somewhat, and he could now move around a little.  So 3 Faces concerns a road trip that Panahi and a friend take up into the northwestern Iranian province of Azerbaijan (which is where Panahi grew up).  The film was presented at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where its script written by Panahi and Nader Saeivar was given the award for Best Screenplay [1]. 

Many Iranian films, particularly those of Panahi as well as those of his senior colleague Abbas Kiastomi under whom he once served, have a semi-documentary feel to them, which some critics have likened to neorealism.  And 3 Faces is no exception on this score.  But Panahi tends to go further in this respect and intentionally blurs the boundary between narrative fiction and documented reality, with most of the characters, including Panahi, playing themselves in the story that is told.  So the viewer is sometimes left wondering if he or she is watching a documentary about Panahi or a fictional story about Panahi – or even a documentary about Panahi making a film about Panahi.

The story of 3 Faces begins in highly dramatic fashion with Panahi hurriedly driving his well-known actress friend Behnaz Jafari (played by herself) up into Azerbaijan, a northwest Iranian province where the natives speak the Turkic Azeri language.  The two travellers are responding to a self-made video that Panahi had received from a young woman, Marziyeh Rezaei (playing herself), that was intended for Ms. Jafari and which expressed her intention to commit suicide.  In fact the selfie video, which was shot in a single take, appears to show the girl actually committing suicide by hanging herself from mountainside tree branch. 

Ms. Jafari is beside herself with concern and is desperately hoping that the video she has seen was artificially staged by the clearly distraught girl in order to arouse her concern.  What has driven Marziyeh to such desperation is that her passionate dreams of self-fulfilment are being thwarted by her conservative family.  She fervently wants to become an actress, and she has been accepted to study in a prestigious drama school.  But her family thinks that the idea of becoming an “entertainer” is shameful and has insisted that Marziyeh accept an arranged marriage and resign herself to being an ordinary village housewife.  Marziyeh believes that if Ms. Jafari, who is a well-known TV and film actress and therefore a celebrity, could intercede on her behalf, then she might be able to persuade her family that acting can be a respectable profession for a woman.  But as Marziyeh explains in her video, her repeated failures to get Behnaz to respond to her phone calls has driven the young girl to a suicidal state.

So the stage is set for melodrama.  But when Panahi and Jafari reach Marziyeh’s home town of Mianeh (which is also Panahi’s home town), things slow down, and the film takes on a more leisurely tone as it explore the film’s larger themes [2].  As the two visitors look around for Marziyeh, they have a number of encounters with the provincial locals, which give Panahi an opportunity to take a satirical look at  some aspects of traditional Iranian ways of thinking on the local level.  It turns out that Jafari’s suspicions were correct: Marziyeh’s suicide was staged.  But the issues that led Marziyeh to desperation are still there. Marziyeh has fled her family’s home and is still missing. 

As the characters Panahi and Jafari explore the area looking for Marziyeh, Panahi, the filmmaker, explores some other issues in his usual oblique (by necessity) manner:
  • Truth 
    The question of how the people know what is true is always an issue in Iran, and this film alludes to that in several places.  One instance, of course. is the truth of Marziyeh’s suicide, which turns out to be false.  But the issue of truth is generalized when Jafari, questioning the veracity of Marziyeh’s selfie video, wonders aloud whether she is actually an uninformed participant in a fiction film that is being made by Panahi about suicide.  The viewer will naturally reflect on the meta-level ramifications of Jafari’s speculation.    

    But in any society, the approach to a true understanding of things will be severely hindered if one-half of the population, i.e. the women, are restricted from expressing themselves.
     
  • Masculinity and Femininity 
    There are several encounters with the villagers that display some common attitudes of these people towards gender.  On one occasion they were stopped on a narrow mountain road by an injured bull that blocked the way.  The farmer who owned the bull sang the praises of his bull’s virility because of its capability of impregnating ten cows in one night. For him such a display of virility was a matter of high honour.  They have another encounter with a local who holds his son’s circumcision-removed and preserved foreskin to have near sacred importance.  This man also dreams of his son emulating in real-life the film roles of old masculine film idol Behrouz Vossoughi.  Vossoughi was famous for his roles in stories of revenge and hatred (e.g. Qeysar (1969) and Tangsir (1974)) [4].  What he wants is for his son to be a “real man” and carry out vengeful attacks of retribution the way Vossoughi did in his movies.  As for women, their proper role is to serve in the home as housewives – as violently expressed by Marziyeh’s brother.
Panahi and Jafari eventually do find out that Marziyeh is hiding out in the relatively remote home of an old woman named Shahrzad, who was an active actress, dancer, and poet before the 1979 Iranian revolution but who dropped out of sight after the revolution and is now a neglected and poverty-stricken recluse.
 
Although Shahrzad’s face is never seen in this film, she is an important figure thematically, and she is one of the “3 Faces” (along with Marziyeh and Behnaz Jafari) referred to in the film’s title.  Her character in this film is, like all the characters in this story, undoubtedly a reference to another real person – in this case, Kobra Amin Sa’idi.  She was an important poet, dancer, and actress in the 1960s and 70s who performed under the stage name “Shahrzad” – for example in Qeysar (1969) and Dash Akol (1971).  But the new and oppressive revolutionary culture had no place for her womanly artistry [3].  A documentary account of her life, then and now, has been presented in the film Shahrzaad's Tale (2015).

Eventually Marziyeh and Behnaz do hook up with each other, but the film’s ultimate resolution at the end is not entirely clear.  The options available to Marziyeh are uncertain, at best.

Panahi tells this tale in a leisurely fashion, with many reaction shots, some of them in the form of long takes to convey the mood of the of the onscreen observer/listener (Jafari or Panahi).  Note in this connection that Panahi’s three preceding films, shot as they were under severe restrictions due to his sentencing, all had an unavoidable feeling of confinement to  them.  Here in 3 Faces, though, with Panahi now afforded greater leeway to move around, one might expect the claustrophobic aura to be significantly lessened.  Nevertheless, even though 3 Faces does have many exterior shots, including many shots of the road as seen from looking outside of Panahi’s vehicle, there is still an overall visual feeling of confinement to the film.  So we are given the sense that our pursuers of truth in this story are considerably restricted with respect to the reality they can observe.

If we reflect on the “3 Faces” presented in this film, we can see that Panahi has given us three different era-dependent perspectives on womanhood in Iran:
  • Shahrzad (the past)
    She represents the pre-revolutionary period of Iran in the 1960s and 70s when women were starting to be given more equitable treatment and opportunities in society.  Shahrzad, herself, was an expressive embodiment of this opening-up.  The fact that her face is totally effaced from the current society is a grim comment on what has been lost since that era.
     
  • Behnaz Jafari (the present) 
    She represents the more restricted present era, in which a few women can achieve prominence if they manage to appear frequently in the media and toe the line.
     
  • Marziyeh (the future) 
    Although Marziyeh is educated,  creative (witness her selfie suicide video), and courageous, her opportunities remain restricted by strong prejudices still rooted in traditional Iranian society.  She represents the uncertain future. 
We can only hope that expressive voices like Panahi’s can help generate a future that will afford the Marziyehs of this world the opportunities they seek.  Then a film like this can have a happy ending.
★★★
                                                 
Notes:
  1. Jessica Kiang, “Film Review: ‘3 Faces’”, Variety, (1 July 2018).   
  2. Geoff Andrew, “Cannes first look: Three Faces’s road trip finds Jafar Panahi on familiar ground”, Sight & Sound, (15 May 2018).   
  3. “Poetry, or the Power of Existence: Shahin Parhami’s ‘Shahrzaad’s Tale’“, Ajam Media Collective, (2 August 2017).   
  4. But Behrouz Vossoughi played a somewhat more reflective and tragic figure in Dash Akol (1971).

Benjamin Gilmour

Films of Benjamin Gilmour:
  • Jirga - Benjamin Gilmour (2018)

“Jirga” - Benjamin Gilmour (2018)

Jirga (2018) is an Australian-made drama set in strife-torn Afghanistan that covers some issues associated with guilt from different perspectives.  How this film came to be made is actually an interesting story in its own right.  Writer-director-cameraman Benjamin Gilmour’s only other film, Son of a Lion (2007), was shot and set in Pakistan, and he intended to have Jirga shot in Pakistan, too.  However, once he and his crew started shooting in Pakistan, the Pakistani government’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) agency read the script and decided to revoke permission to shoot the film in that country [1].  This led Gilmour’s Pakistan-based principal funder to withdraw his financial support for the production.  Left without a crew and financial backing, Gilmour chose to shift to Afghanistan and rely on crowd-funding to shoot the film on-the-fly and under dangerous, sometimes life-threatening, conditions. 

The story that was filmed to make Jirga concerns a young Australian soldier, Mike Wheeler (played by Sam Smith), who returns to Afghanistan on his own after having served there three years earlier in the Australian military peacekeeping forces.  His return trip to Afghanistan is a personal mission and the  key to this film, but it takes some time in the telling of this tale for the reasons behind this mission to be revealed.  It is soon revealed, however, that Mike is carrying tens of thousands of dollars in US currency that are presumably to be used as an instrument on this mission.  It is only later revealed in the film that three years earlier Mike had accidentally killed an unarmed Afghan civilian, and he has returned now to seek out the family of his victim and to express his repentance for what he did.

The story of Mike’s mission is presented in five rather disjointed segments, the disjointedness of which we can probably attribute to the difficult shooting circumstance that Gilmour and his production team faced in Afghanistan.  (For example, Gilmour apparently shot the film himself with just a single hand-held camera that he had picked up in Pakistan [2]). 

1.  Kabul
At the outset of the film, the sullen and swarthy Mike Wheeler is shown having recently arrived in Kabul and looking to hire a taxi driver to take him on a long journey south to a village near the city of Kandahar.  This is a difficult task for two reasons.  For one thing, the Kandahar area is held by the violent Taliban insurgents, and none of the taxi drivers is willing to drive there.  In addition Mike doesn’t speak the native Pashtun language, and the drivers hardly speak any English.  So negotiating anything with a taxi driver is extremely difficult. 

Gilmour’s mise-en-scene concentrates the focalization of the film almost exclusively on Mike, so the viewer is only privy to what Mike sees and hears.  Thus, although there is quite a bit of Pashtun heard on the soundtrack, there are no subtitles provided; so the viewer is likely to be just as ignorant as Mike concerning what is being said [3].

Eventually, Mike does manage to hire a taxi driver to take him south, without specifying precisely where he intends to go.

2.  The Taxi Trip
The next segment shows Mike and the taxi driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) heading south through the picturesque mountainous landscape.   And despite the language barrier, they gradually get to know each other and become friends.  Eventually and after much effort, Mike does manage to persuade his reluctant driver to take him into the dangerous Taliban-infested area,  Although the story seems to dawdle during this part of the film, this sequence, which depicts the universality of human companionship, despite differences in language, customs, religion, etc., and which is presented in beautiful natural surroundings, is one of the more appealing parts of the  film.

3.  Lost in the Wilderness

After considerable travel, their taxi is eventually stopped on the road at a Taliban checkpoint, and Mike just barely manages to escape capture by running off into the barren wilderness.  This extended sequence shows Mike utterly alone and wandering without food and water under the hot sun through the desert-like terrain.  Again the narrative seems to slow down even more, although the shots of the naturally scenic landscape in the background are dazzling.

Mike finally drops down on the ground and loses consciousness.  He is apparently close to death.

4.  A Taliban Captive

But the Taliban happen to discover Mike just in time and take him captive, and now the pace of the film picks up again.  Mike’s captors brutally subject him to severe beatings, and then they coldly discuss what to do with him – with the presumption that it is probably best to kill him.  However, one of the Taliban guerrillas can speak some English, and Mike finally has the chance to explain to them what his mission is about and that it is not intended to be a threat to the Taliban.  He wants to seek his victim’s family and offer them all his money as recompense for what he had done.  But his Taliban captors  dismissively explain to him that giving money to his victim’s family members would just be seen as selling a life for money and would therefore be unacceptable to any true Muslim.  So, to them, his mission was doomed to be futile anyway.

Although it still seems that most of the Taliban in this troop want to see Mike put to death, their senior leader is mysteriously fascinated by the altruistic extravagance of Mike’s mission.  He orders his men to escort Mike to the vicinity of his victim’s village, which does not happen to be under Taliban control, and let him go there on his own.

5.  The Village Jirga
Mike now enters the village of his victim and abandons the idea of offering “bribery” money to his victim’s family (a widow and two children) for the expiation of his sins.  Mike is quickly incarcerated, and a village jirga (a council of village elders) is summoned to determine his fate.  What transpires in the end is an  intriguing but debatable form of justice, and there is some doubt in my mind as to whether anything conclusive or uplifting has been achieved.  Since the film’s basic themes concern guilt, repentance, and justice all seen from a cross-cultural or universal perspective, the way the film ends was something of a disappointment for me.


We know that Mike feels very guilty about what he did, but he is so taciturn that we never know about the nature of his repentance or what he conceives to be appropriate atonement.  In addition, what is the nature of forgiveness that he seeks, and what is the nature of forgiveness that his victims are capable of?  It is generally accepted in the Abrahamic religions that God, or Allah, will fully forgive a sinner who truly repents his or her wrongdoings. But this is a matter between the human sinner and God, Who can unerringly assess the true nature of the sinners repentance.  It is much more ambiguous, even in these same religious cultures, concerning the degree to which religious humans will forgive the sins of their fellow humans. 

And the film’s coverage of this issue does not offer much insight. Are we only left with the notion that “two wrongs don’t make a right”?  And the mechanism by which the village jirga executes its justice in the end also seems arbitrary, at best.  So although there is a certain degree of rapprochement, or “coming together”, across cultural disparities in the film, the extent to which any common understanding is actually achieved is unclear.

On the production level, I also had some misgivings concerning some aspects of the film.  Although we have to grant director Benjamin Gilmour considerable latitude in view of the difficult production conditions he faced, nevertheless it is necessary to warn prospective viewers that (a) the almost-continuous shaky hand-held camera movement and (b) the numerous jarring jump-cuts throughout the film are a constant disturbance to one’s viewing enjoyment of the film.

So overall, we could say that Jirga does have some fascinating moments, even if the ride is definitely bumpy along the way.
½

Notes:
  1. Benjamin Gilmour, Cameras and Kalashnikovs: The Making of Jirga, Benjamin Gilmour Films, (29 May 2018). 
  2. Richard Gray, “Review: Jirga”, thereelbits.com, (18 June 2018).  
  3. Later, when Mike is captured by the Taliban, there is some brief focalization on his captors, and there are some subtitles concerning what they are saying.

Benedikt Erlingsson

Films of Benedikt Erlingsson:

“Woman at War” - Benedikt Erlingsson (2018)

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, 2018) is a satirical drama from Iceland that deftly showcases a number of philosophical and sociopolitical issues in an offbeat fashion [1,2,3].  It does this by considering everything from the perspective of a lone, middle-aged woman whose life is driven by her idealistic social goals.

Halla (wonderfully played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a 49-year-old choir director in Iceland, who is well-like and admired by all those who come in contact with her.  But unbeknownst to everyone else, she is also a vigorous eco-activist, who engages in lone acts of sabotage out in the wild to further her environmentalist aims.  Halla is shown early on bringing down electric power lines and pylons that supply energy to the Rio Tinto company’s aluminium operations, which are condemned by environmentalists.  To carry out her single-handed acts of sabotage, she bravely and expertly uses compact tools, such as a collapsible bow-and-arrow kit and a portable power saw – activities that would normally be considered to be beyond the range of most blue-collar men, not to mention that of a cultured, middle-aged woman like Halla.

This film about Halla’s eccentric adventures was innovatively directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and scripted by Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson, and it won the SACD (Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques) Award for the best screenplay during the International Critics' Week at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.  However, because of the film’s out-of-the-ordinary material and style, the viewer may be skeptical watching the early stages.  But as the film progresses and the viewer gets more in tune with its rhythms, he or she is likely to succumb to its charms.

One standout element of the film is the way its offbeat musical score, composed by Davíð Þór Jónsson, is employed.  On the one hand it works as background theme music that reflects the mood of what is shown.  But on the other hand the performance of the music by an oddball trio  – consisting of keyboardist (Davíð Þór Jónsson), a drummer, and a sousaphone player – is inserted directly into the diegetic action in shots where it makes no sense to see a band trio appear.  The same bizarre trio pops up in the background all over the place in this film.  Later on another such musical trio, this time a vocal trio of Ukrainian women, plays a similar insertive role in the film.  In some ways we could view these diegetic musical insertions as playing the role of a musical Greek chorus for the drama.  Since the musical insertions are injecting mood, not commentary, into the presentation, we could also view this aspect of Erlingsson’s mise-en-scene to be an instrument of expressionism [4]. 

As the story progresses and Halla’s acts of “eco-terrorism” continue, the government becomes alarmed.  Halla’s activities are threatening the continuance of a big deal between the Icelandic and Chinese governments concerning the extraction of raw materials from Iceland’s pristine natural environment.  So the government resolutely tries to hunt down this unknown saboteur (whom the media call the “The Mountain Woman”) with helicopters and aerial drones.  And we see Halla just barely managing to escape her predators by running across the wild terrain and athletically scrambling into small burrows to hide [5].

In the course of these pursuits, there is something of a running gag in the film.  Wherever the government authorities think an act of “eco-terrorism” has taken place or is about to take place, they arrest the same innocent bystander (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) simply because, as a Latin American, he looks like a foreigner and is therefore suspicious.  They never suspect that a dignified choir director could be the source of their problems.

We also see Halla interact with her identical twin sister, Asa (also played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), who is a yoga teacher and more focused on spiritual matters.  The scenes showing Halla and Asa together in one shot are amazingly and seamlessly crafted, and I couldn’t help wondering how they were accomplished.

In addition, Halla is sometimes seen with her timid co-conspirator, Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), who works in a government ministry and who occasionally supplies Halla with useful government information. 

Midway through all this, though, comes a piece of information that disrupts all of Halla’s plans.  She gets a letter that her long-forgotten application to adopt an orphan has been finally granted.  She is now presumably supposed to desist from her acts of sabotage against Rio Tinto, just when things were coming to a head, and instead travel to Ukraine, where she is to pickup the four-year-old girl she has been assigned to adopt.  Halla had always longed to be a mother, and this appears to be her last chance.  So now Halla faces a difficult choice: either continue to engage in her idealistic endeavors in support of wider humanity or focus her efforts on her smaller, personal sphere.

All the way along in this story, there is an overlapping set of issues and divides that keep coming to the viewer’s attention:
  • Collective Welfare vs. Selfish Advancement 
    We live in an era where common-pool resources, both human-made (e.g. irrigation systems, harbors, highways, etc.) and natural systems (e.g. atmosphere, water, information, etc.) need to be preserved and maintained for the common good [6].  However, these common-pool resources are increasingly threatened by privatization efforts that, under the guise of simplified libertarian ideals,  look to extract profits from these resources for short-term gains.  Halla in this story is clearly on the side of collective welfare and preserving her society’s common resources from exploitative extraction on the part of private property holders.  In this respect Halla would likely to be generally on the side of communal and government institutions that seek to protect common-pool resources from rapacious business interests [7].
     
  • Individual vs. System 
    But Halla is also a lone individual combating the “system”, i.e. the current governing authorities.  In this sense she is following the dictates of her own conscience, even when her conscience pushes her to violate existing law.  But, of course, she is not just an instinctive rebel, and she would presumably embrace a wider social system that reflected the inclusive values that she is seeking.
     
  • Femininity vs. Masculinity 
    The societal distinctions between masculine and feminine roles come to mind throughout the film.  Halla is generally ladylike, but she carries out her sabotages with machismo.  And in contrast, her male co-conspirator, Baldvin, is so cautious as to be almost unmanly, in the conventional sense.  But Halla’s innate femininity comes to the fore when her maternal instincts are aroused in connection with her plans to adopt the little girl.  So at various times Halla embodies both of these notions.
     
  • Outer Salvation vs. Inner Salvation 
    Halla’s acts of courageous eco-activism represent her efforts to save the world for all mankind.  Her twin sister Asa, on the other hand, seeks her own inner peace by pursuing a path of meditation: In fact it is her intention to go on a two-year retreat to India, where she will engage in round-the-clock meditation. In this regard Asa, who could be seen as Halla’s alter ego, remarks to her sister that they are both seeking salvation, with Halla following and outer path and Asa following an inner path. 
The film presents all four of these thematic bipolarities as they manifest themselves in different forms, and it shows through the character of its protagonist, Halla, how they may be bridged and ameliorated.

Near the end of this story Halla has finally been captured and exposed by authorities.  But there are still a few cards to be played, surprisingly by Asa and others, that make for an interesting denouement.  I will leave it to you to find out what happens.

Overall and despite some unsteady hand-held camera work along the way that obtrudes slightly on one’s enjoyment, I would say that Woman at War is well-crafted and thought-provoking. It is a quirky and interesting film that is well worth seeing. 
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Wendy Ide, “'Woman At War': Cannes Review”, Screen Daily, (13 May 2018).   
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Woman at War review – pylon-slayer faces adoption challenge in quirky Icelandic eco-drama”, The Guardian, (12 May 2018).   
  3. Jay Weissberg, “Film Review: ‘Woman at War’”, Variety,  (13 May 2018).   
  4. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   
  5. Actress Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir was, herself, 49-years-old at the time of shooting, and she performs these scenes admirably.
  6. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, (1990).  
  7. Elizabeth Warren, “Companies Shouldn’t Be Accountable Only to Shareholders”, The Wall Street Journal, (14 August 2018). 

“Shoplifters” - Hirokazu Koreeda (2018)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film, Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, 2018), has so far received  unanimous acclaim from film critics the world over [1,2,3 ], and it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Koreeda is a well-established Japanese film auteur who has written, directed, and edited many of his best works (e..g. Nobody Knows, 2004; Still Walking, 2008; Like Father, Like Son, 2013; and After the Storm, 2016).  His films often center around multiple generational aspects of Japanese families, and in fact they often involve a deeper exploration of what it means to be the member of a family.  This is particularly the case with Shoplifters

Because of this general focus on familial contexts, Koreeda has often been compared to Japanese film icon Yasujiro Ozu.  And this comparison is reinforced by the fact that Koreeda often employed, like Ozu, straight-on closeups, with the subject looking straight into and speaking directly to the camera.  However, despite these similarities in style and content, Koreeda’s earthy and dynamic presentation conveys, for me, quite a different feeling than Ozu’s more detached and contemplative approach.  Part of this overall mood difference could be attributed to differences in the social milieus considered – the social circumstance of Shoplifters are at the gritty and chaotic lowest economic level, while the social circumstances of most Ozu films are in the more customized middle classes.

The story of Shoplifters revolves around a bottom-class “family” in Tokyo, who somehow manage to get along congenially despite their constant shortage of money to live on.  At the outset of the film, two of the family members come across a little girl on the street who they suspect is the victim of child abuse.  So they decide to take the girl into their home and informally adopt her as a new member of their family.  As we follow the family members about their various mundane activities, we gradually learn, by slow disclosure, more about the makeup of this family.  As far as we can tell early on, the family consists of
  • Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky).  He is the father, and he works as a construction worker whenever he can find a contractor who will hire him for a short-term assignment.  But in general he seems to show more diligence in shoplifting than in construction working.
     
  • Nobuyo (Sakura Ando).  She is Osamu’s wife, and she works in an industrial laundry.  One gets the feeling that it is her warm and expansive personality that holds this family together.
     
  • Shota (Kairi Jo).  He is the early teenage son who participates in almost daily shoplifting excursions with his father, Osamu.
     
  • Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).   She is a pretty, twentyish young woman who appears at first to be a daughter of Osamu and Nobuyo, but later turns out to be Nobuyo’s half-sister.  At any rate she is definitely a core member of this family.  She works as a stripper at a porno gallery, where individual clients can view her lewd performance through a two-way mirror (differing levels of room illumination mean that the glass partition works as a window in one direction and as a mirror in the opposite direction).
     
  • Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  She is the five- or six-year-old girl who is discovered on the street  by Osamu and Shota coming home from a shoplifting operation, and she is ultimately adopted by the Shibata family.
     
  • Hatsue (Kirin Kiki).   She is the grandmother and a key member of the family, because  they all live together in her cramped home, and the government pension of her late ex-husband is a principal source of the family’s income. 
There is no single star or protagonist of this film; and there is focalization at times on all of these family members at various points.  The viewer may at times suspect that the film’s narrative focus is on Osamu or Nobuyo, but at other times and towards the end, the narrative focus seems to have shifted to Shota and Yuri.  Overall, we could say that the narrative focus is on the “family” as a whole, as seen through its individual members.

Perhaps what makes Shoplifters an interesting film are its various social themes, which it presents in a lighthearted fashion.  One of those themes concerns honesty and authenticity.  None of the family members is who he or she claims to be, and they all seem to have multiple identities.  Indeed, they are not truly connected by family relationships, as the word ‘family’ is normally understood.  This is all revealed at the end of the film, when one of Shota’s shoplifting acts (perhaps intentionally) goes awry.  At that point they are remanded by the authorities, and the “family” becomes unraveled when their original identities are revealed.

So they are all liars to the outside world, and yet to each other, they are warm and authentic.  They (and perhaps the viewer, too) feel that bad luck and dysfunctional social norms have forced them into lives of petty thievery.  But “reclaiming” basic commodities from big companies in order to have a basic life is, to them, just a matter of getting some basic things that should have been accorded to them anyway.  And to each other, the family members are honest and mutually supportive. 

Another theme concerns what it means to be a family.  Although our “family” in this film is a fraud, they have all chosen to be members of this family.  And it seems that Shota and Yuri get more parental love and concern in this false family than they did in their original families [4]. The film rhetorically asks the question why the government shouldn’t recognize the authenticity and the legality of this kind of family, too?

And a further question also comes to mind.  How is it morally acceptable in a relatively wealthy country that the governing authorities can allow such conditions to exist that even people with ordinary jobs feel compelled to engage in shoplifting?  This is a question that can be asked in many world societies.

This is not to suggest that thievery is actually the right thing to do.  The family members are not fighting off starvation. And indeed children Shota and Yuri seem to have been welcomed into the family by Osamu in part because the two kids can serve as innocent props in connection with his shoplifting capers.  But the family members are not truly bad people, either.  They are just ordinary people looking for ordinary happiness.  But they have slipped into mildly unlawful behavior, because this is what some ordinary people on the lower rungs of society do sometimes.  It is Shota who begins to have moral qualms about his and his family’s behavior.  He perhaps precipitates his family’s downfall in the end because of his burgeoning moral concerns.

In the end, we can perhaps empathize with, if not entirely condone, all the members of the Shibata family and their varying perspectives, which is a strength of Koreeda’s production.  All the acting performances are quite good and natural, particularly that of Sakura Ando as Nobuyo Shibata.  It is she who carries the vital spirit of Shoplifters and its underlying messages.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Maggie Lee, “Cannes Film Review: ‘Shoplifters’ (Manbiki Kazoku)”, Variety, (14 May 2018).   
  2. Mark Schilling, “‘Shoplifters’: Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner is an eloquent look at the human condition”, The Japan Times, (13 June 2018).   
  3. Jessica Kiang, “Cannes first look: Shoplifters – a wonky family lament that weaponises Koreeda’s compassion”, Sight & Sound, (19 May 2018).   
  4. Although at one point it seems that the self-indulgent Osamu was ready to betray his “son”, Shota.

“Tokyo Story” - Yasujiro Ozu (1953)

Yasujiro Ozu, the much-admired and revered Japanese filmmaker who flourished from the end of World War II until his death in 1963, was renowned both for his characteristic focus on Japanese middle-class family culture and his distinctive mise-en-scene.  Accordingly, he is often ranked, with Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, at the top of the list of great Japanese filmmakers. However, it took some time before Ozu’s greatness was generally recognized in the West.  His work was thought to be too “Japanese” for export overseas.  It was not until 1972, when what is often considered to be his masterwork, Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953), was reopened in New York and Paul Schrader’s influential treatise Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer [1] was published, that Ozu’s work began to receive the attention in the West that it deserved.

Since then Ozu’s reputation among cineastes has only increased, and Tokyo Story has played a major role in this advancement [2,3,4].  In support of this assessment, we note that every ten years the British Film Institute conducts two separate polls – one of international film directors and one of international film critics – to rank the greatest film’s of all time.  And in the most recent BFI polling (2012), Tokyo Story was ranked as the greatest film of all time on the director’s poll [5] and as the third greatest film of all time on the critic’s poll [6]. 

As mentioned, what immediately distinguishes Ozu’s filmmaking is his unique style of presentation.  I discussed his distinctive cinematic style in my review of his film Early Spring (1956) [7]:
Ozu’s Cinematography
Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit of cutting on action, which evokes the idea of the camera representing the “invisible” witness whose focus of attention changes naturally with an action cut.  Sometimes, at dramatically significant moments in the story, there is a straight-on camera shot, with the principal character speaking directly to the camera, which places the invisible witness directly in the middle of the interaction, empathetically assuming the role of the recipient of the speaker’s words.

For scene transitions, Ozu often shows static cityscape images that are empty of human content.  Sometimes these scene transitions elliptically pass over a significant piece of action that must be inferred by the viewer.  Altogether these effects create their own special cinematic atmosphere  that seems to place the viewer in an intimate position to witness the scene, and yet not always privy to everything that is going on.
Thus we often see shot transitions that “cross the axis” and also jump cuts in Ozu’s work that violate customary filmmaking standards, but this can partly be accounted for by Ozu’s different take on focalization.  Rather than focalize on a particular character in a scene, whereby the viewer sees things from that character’s perspective, Ozu often focalizes on a static setting, which orients things around the external contexts of what is happening.  These static settings are returned to again and again, and they become “familiar images” with respect to the narrative evolution of the story.  (Further, more detailed, discussion of Ozu’s distinctive mise-en-scene has been given by David Bordwell [8]).

Tokyo Story offers a good example of Ozu’s often said to be “Zen-like” stylistics, even though the film’s story was inspired by an older American film.  Co-screenwriter (along with Ozu) Kogo Noda had seen Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and suggested to Ozu that they fashion a film together based on its plot elements, which concern an older couple making a journey in order to deal with family issues concerning their grownup children.  The film Ozu and Noda constructed does feature a journey (several, actually), and that always interesting narrative metaphor may partly account for Tokyo Story’s special appeal. But the journey aspect is not emphasized in Ozu’s film, and Tokyo Story’s attractiveness comes from other quarters – its themes concerning mainly life’s bittersweet nature and the unstoppable passage of time.

In fact we can identify a number of overlapping themes in Tokyo Story.  Many of these themes are universal and apply across all social stripes worldwide:
  • Resignation concerning the inescapable effects of the passage of time.  There is nothing we can do to ward off the inevitability of ultimate decline and death, and we must face our fates with resignation.
     
  • Social protocols.  The various social protocols in family life and social life, in general, are intended to regulate social interactions smoothly, but they can be seen as burdensome and insincere, especially if they are rigidly imposed.  In this context the oriental custom of always smiling during conversations may play a special role.
     
  • Men vs. women.  The different roles that men and women have in family life, and the different expectations to which they are held was always a fascination of Ozu’s, and they are an important consideration in this film.  Japan was undergoing rapid social change at this time, in the wake of catastrophic wars and forced westernization, and the roles of women, in particular, were in a state of flux.
     
  • Parents separation from children.  It is inevitable that as children grow up, they change and become engrossed in their own affairs.  Gradually they (usually) lose touch with and interest in their parents, whom they have left behind. How both parents and their children deal with this inevitable progression is a focus in this film.
Tokyo Story’s narrative concerns an elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, who have raised five children and who make the long, several hundred mile, train trip from their home in Onomichi in southwest Japan to visit some of them in Tokyo.  The role of the old father, Shukichi, is played by Ozu favorite Chishu Ryu, who played in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films, including all of his postwar films.  Ryu usually plays the role of a thoughtful, contemplative person, and as such, he is a person with whom the audience can empathize, even when he is not saying  much.  In this film Ryu, who was 49-years-old at the time, very effectively plays the role of a man  who is 72-years-old.

Shukichi and Tomi (played by Chieko Higashiyama) are very much interested in catching up with their children, whom they haven’t seen for a number of years.  They also want to visit the widow of their deceased son on their trip.  Their five children, four of whom are still living, are
  • Koichi (So Yamamura), a doctor running a pediatric clinic out of his own home in a Tokyo suburb, is married and has two children.  He is sober, unemotional, and dedicated to his professional work.  He, somewhat guiltily, sees his parents’ visit as an unwanted intrusion into his busy life.
     
  • Shige Kaneko (Haruko Sugimura) is married and runs a beauty parlor connected with her home in Tokyo.  Although she wears traditional (non-Western) dress, Shige is not a traditional graciously self-deprecating lady; she is an aggressive and assertive woman.  And in fact she is shown to be bossy, manipulative, and selfish.  She, too, finds her parents’ visit to be an imposition.  Her husband Kurazo is more mild and takes a back seat in their social interactions.
     
  • Shoji, the second son, was a Japanese soldier who went missing in 1945 and is presumed dead.  His widow, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), is a gracious and caring woman who goes out of her way to accommodate her parents-in-law.  Setsuko Hara, who played the role of Noriko, was, like Chishu Ryu, a favorite of Ozu’s, and she appeared in six of Ozu’s best films.  In the first three of her Ozu films (Late Spring, 1949; Early Summer, 1951; and Tokyo Story1953), Setsuko Hara played a significant character named Noriko.  Even though the plots of these three films have no connection with each other, the three films are sometimes referred to as Ozu’s “Noriko Trilogy”, thanks to the glowing presence of   Setsuko Hara.
     
  • Keizo (Shiro Osaka) is the unmarried third son who works for a trading company in Osaka.  He is well-meaning but preoccupied with his own affairs.
     
  • Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), the youngest child, is their unmarried daughter.  She still lives with her parents in Onomichi and works as a schoolteacher.
The story of Tokyo Story passes through four approximate stages.

1.  Visiting Koichi and Shige
The elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, first visit the home of their eldest child, Koichi, for a few  days.  But Koichi is so occupied with his own pediatrics affairs (he doesn’t even appear to have much time to discipline his own obstreperous son) that he has no time to entertain his guests.  So Shukichi and Tomi shift over to their daughter Shige’s residence. 

But Shige is even more too selfishly preoccupied to have the time to entertain her parents.  So she asks her sister-in-law Noriko to take up the task.  Though of much more modest means than her siblings-in-law, Noriko graciously takes a day off from her job to take Shukichi and Tomi  out on the town and show them the wonders of Tokyo.

2.  Atami Hot Springs
After a week or so, Shige and Dr. Koichi finally hit on a plan to relieve them of their social obligations to their parents: send the neglected couple off alone for awhile to the Atami Hot Springs resort on the coast.  However, when  Shukichi and Tomi arrive at the resort, they find little of interest for them to do, and the noisy atmosphere of the pleasure-seeking vacationers in attendance there merely keeps the elderly couple up at night.  So they decide to return early to their kids in Tokyo.  Before they depart from Atami, though, Tomi experience a dizzy spell that reveals that her health is frail.

3.  Return to Tokyo
Upon returning to Tokyo, Shukichi and Tomi discover that because they had come back earlier than expected, their room in Shige’s apartment was already “booked” by Shige for a social event for her beautician colleagues.  So Shukichi and Tomi obligingly decide to find their own sleeping quarters for the night.  Tomi decides to spend the night with Noriko in her cramped apartment, while Shukichi choose to spend the night with an old friend from Onomichi who now lives in Tokyo.

That evening Shukichi goes out drinking with old friends from Onomichi, and he and his friends get thoroughly plastered, in one of the more interesting sequences of the film.  With the effects   of alcohol lowering the veil of customary Japanese courteousness, the men lament to each other how disappointed they are with how their children have turned out.  In particular, they are sad that they cannot take more pride in what their children have become.  We later learn that Shukichi had once been a heavy drinker, which put a severe strain on his relationship with his wife; but he had sworn off alcohol when his daughter Kyoko had been born.

At the same time Tomi is with Noriko, and the old woman urges her daughter-in-law not to abide by old-fashioned social protocols and to find another man so that she can remarry and start a family.

Now with nothing more to do and not wishing to wear out their dubious welcome, Shukichi and Tomi decide to return to Onomichi.  On the way home, though, during a stopover in Osaka to see Keizo, Tomi suffers a stroke and is taken back to Onomichi critically ill and in a coma.

4.  Onomichi Nightfall
More mindful than ever of social protocols, the children and Noriko rush to Onomichi to be at Tomi’s side.  And always attending to her practical concerns, Shige reminds the others to bring their funeral garments.  But when Shige hears the ever-analytical Dr. Koichi’s grim assessment that Tomi will not survive the night, she bursts into tears.  Thus we see that underneath Shige’s personal traits of selfish social manipulation, there is a substratum of genuine feminine feeling that is usually covered up.  Later, though, we see Shige returning to her usual intemperance when she complains about Keizo’s late arrival just after Tomi’s death.  Although Tomi was unconscious and unaware of any of the children when they arrived, Keizo’s late arrival was an unforgivable violation of protocol in Shige’s eyes.

After the funeral when the family has lunch together, Shige again makes self-centered remarks, for example eagerly asking Kyoko to give her some of Tomi’s old dresses. Then Shige, Koichi, and Keizo immediately head back to Tokyo, while Noriko chooses to stay another day with Shukichi. 

The next morning Noriko and Kyoko talk, and the young daughter tearfully criticizes her older siblings for their relentless selfishness.  But the ever-compassionate Noriko defends the others to Noriko.  She says that all children inevitably get involved in their own narratives and can’t help from drifting away from their parents.  Kyoko responds to this wisdom by saying, “Isn’t life disappointing!”  And Noriko can only smile and say, “Yes, it is.”

Later Shukichi and Noriko talk, and he repeats Tomi’s urgings that she should forget about his dead son and start a new life by remarrying.  Then he gives her as a departing gift Tomi’s old wristwatch that she had worn all her life.

The final shots show Noriko, on the train gazing at the keepsake watch she has been given, and Shukichi, sitting alone at home, both separately contemplating life’s lonely, existential mysteries.


Tokyo Story ends on a note of sadness and resignation concerning the inevitability of time passing and things coming to an end.  It also dwells on the limitations of social protocols if the participants don’t engage in them with sincerity.  This is not to suggest that social protocols don’t have their value.  They can encourage and provide the scaffolding for positive social interactions if one’s participation in them is genuine.  Thus Noriko’s habitually smiling demeanor was a customary posture that may well have assisted and triggered her perpetually compassionate nature. 

Overall, we could say that the principal characters of Tokyo Story offer somewhat different responses to the quizzical nature of time passing and the inevitability of decay.  Shukichi represents benign resignation to life’s mysteries, but he also embodies a generally positive posture of engagement.  Koichi, Shige, Keizo represent common character type responses that we can all recognize, both in the people we meet and in ourselves, too.  They are not really bad people.  They are basically well-meaning people who are distracted by their everyday narrative circumstances and lose sight of more important interpersonal considerations.

It is Noriko, though, who is the special one.  She at first seems simply reflexively ingratiating in an automatic sort of way, but gradually the depth of her character is revealed.  Eventually we discern that she is the real star of this tale.  She knows that she is not perfect and all-knowing, but she continually strives to be understanding and all-loving.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972). 
  2. David Bordwell, “Tokyo Story: Compassionate Detachment”, The Criterion Collection, (18 November 2013).    
  3. Roger Ebert, “Tokyo Story”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (9 November 2003).    
  4. “Conversations About Great Films: Yasujiro Ozu, TOKYO STORY (1953) 136 mins”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXVI:4), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).    
  5. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  6. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘Early Spring’ - Yasujiro Ozu (1956)”, The Film Sufi, (23 July 2014).   
  8. David Bordwell, “Ozu”, The St. James World Film Directors Encyclopedia, Andrew Sarris (ed.), Visible Ink, Detroit (1998), quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Yasujiro Ozu, TOKYO STORY (1953) 136 mins”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXVI:4), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).