‘Our Little Sister’: A Respite from Summer Superhero Movies

The following is my review of the film “Our Little Sister” by the acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, published in Asian American Press. I thank aapress.com for allowing me to post it here on my blog.

For those who might think a Japanese film would never make it to your local cinema, check this list of U.S. screenings:

http://sonyclassics.com/ourlittlesister/dates.html

***

our-little-sister

Premiering last year at Cannes, and later screened at other international film festivals the world over, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister” finally trickles into the local theatres of North American cities, which is timely. In a world rocked by tumultuous strife and unrests, this latest from Kore-eda makes a quiet solace, offering a taste of the ideal in human relationships and harmony despite brokenness.

“Our Little Sister” is Kore-eda’s most recent work after his 2013 Cannes Jury Prize winning “Like Father Like Son”. Following his usual subject of relationships in various family situations, “Our Little Sister” sees Kore-eda at the helm as director, writer, and editor of this production based on the popular Japanese graphic novel “Umimachi Diary” by Yoshida Akimi.

The three Koda sisters have not seen their estranged father for fifteen years. Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho) are now adults, living in the family’s traditional home his father had long deserted in the seaside town of Kamakura. His recent death sends the sisters to his funeral, awkwardly, meeting the woman who had stolen their father’s heart. But it is an inciting incident that changes all their lives. They meet their half sister, 15 year-old Suzu (Suzu Hirose). Herein lies the turning point for the four sisters. Moved by her little step-sister’s mature and quiet demeanor, or maybe stirred by her own older-sister instinct, Sachi invites Suzu to come away and live with them in Kamakura. Suzu gladly agrees.

The new Koda household now is a haven of happy sisterhood. Living under one roof, we see minimal conflicts and constant congeniality. Viewers from a different culture may find the saccharine relationships unrealistic. Are there not any conflicts at all? Of course there are. Kore-eda deftly leads us to some slow revealing. After three quarters of the 120-minute film, we begin to see inner turmoil rise to the surface.

Suzu had to take care of her father in his illness and seeing him to his last breath due to the incompetence of her mother; here is a young teenager bearing the burden of an adult. Now living with three older sisters, Suzu can finally enjoy the childhood she has missed. She quickly captures the attention of other students in her new school with her soccer skills, congeniality and maturity.

In the Koda household, Suzu is the angel of harmony, stirring up love and life. Kore-eda may have spent too much time on the leisurely-paced, day-to-day living such that viewers might feel the lack of conflicts to move the story along. I credit the style to Kore-eda’s realism and a candid camera focusing on the subtleties of nuanced interplay among the characters. Like his previous films “I Wish” (2011), the yearning for family connections of a young boy is shown by his actions and not so much by words, or in “Like Father Like Son” (2013), wherein conflicts are portrayed by contrasts and parallels. Here, while still nursing a deep resentment towards her father for deserting them years ago, Sachi struggles with the moral parallel now as she carries on a relationship with a married doctor at the hospital where she works.

Moral dilemmas, what to choose, how to live, and the search for identity are the issues Kore-eda’s characters have to deal with, but in a way that is quiet and gentle. He introduces us to other endearing characters in the town, adding numerous episodes to build up a human mosaic of harmony in the presence of brokenness and even death.

The scenic seaside town of Kamakura provides a beautiful backdrop for cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto (“Like Father, Like Son”) to shoot the film, reflective of the idyllic life that can be had, even in an imperfect world. The arching branches of the cherry blossoms, landscapes and seascapes mark the healing power of nature. But also like the petals of the cherry blossoms, which third sister Chika likes to pick up and gather in her palm, life is ephemeral.

Reminiscent of Ozu’s films, the passing train is a visual metaphor for the passage of time, changes, and the transience of life. To enrich the visuals, Yoko Kanno’s original score sweeps us through with warmth and tenderness, as a supporting voice telling the story. “Our Little Sister” is a heartwarming film for the unhurried heart to savor.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

‘Like Father Like Son’: A Parent and Child Reunion

Yasujiro Ozu and the Art of Aloneness

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

In honour of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien winning the Best Director award last Sunday at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, I’m re-posting a review I wrote a few years back on Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007).

***

flight-of-the-red-balloon

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris has commissioned four notable directors to create a series of commemorative films. One of them is Olivier Assayas with his Summer Hours (l’Heure d’été) which I have reviewed.  Another is the highly acclaimed Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien. Flight of the Red Balloon is a unique piece of film art gently crafted by Hou in homage to Albert Lamorisee’s Oscar winning short Le Ballon Rouge (1956). Hou has long been garnering awards in international film festivals throughout Europe and Asia since the 1980’s, albeit relatively unknown in North America. Flight of the Red Balloon is his first French language film.

The little boy in this 2007 rendition is Simon (Simon Iteanu), a child growing up in the hustle and bustle of Paris. With an absentee father somewhere in Montreal pursuing his writing, and a frantically busy mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), Simon is alone in an adult world. Overloaded with her work as a voice-over artist in a puppet production plus other personal matters, Suzanne hires Song (Fang Song), a film student from Beijing, to look after Simon for her.

Suzanne is the embodiment of urban frenzy. As a single mother, she has to shuttle between home and work, deal with the eviction of a bad tenant in her lower apartment, confront her non-committal husband on the phone to Montreal, and connect with her daughter in Brussel, all in a day’s work. Simon is most perplexed.  “Why are you so busy, Mama?”, he asks.

song-and-simon

Song, on the other hand, offers the tranquility that is needed to balance life in the midst of chaos. As a film student, she uses her hand-held camera to record Simon’s activities, and by her quiet demeanor and calm observing, she reflects pleasure in the mundane, everyday trivialities called life. This is reality show without sensationalism.  Hou has ingeniously conveyed his perspective of realism with artistic overtone. No doubt, there is a lack of plot, suspense, or climax, but there is character contrasts, cinematic offerings in sights and sounds, and realistic, natural performance. Juliette Binoche has once again assured me why she is one of my favorite actresses. And no, you are not watching paint dry, you are watching life unplugged.

The red balloon forms the focal point of Hou’s signature long take. The almost God-like omnipresence hovering over buildings in the Paris skyline is a joyful symbol of childhood. Its silent drifting is as elusive as the fleeting memories of happiness. Even little Simon achingly remembers the pleasant days he had shared with his much older sister, who is now living in Brussel. We are all trying to catch and hold on to fond memories and meaningful relationships. Yet as the busyness of urban living numb our senses, we ignore and shove away what we think is a hindrance to our time, just like the people rushing out of the subway station, shoving away the red balloon. Only a child would try to catch and befriend it.

Complementing the cinematic artistry is the equally mesmerizing piano music, meditative, serene and restoring, setting the mood and the preamble of the film.  Other musical numbers are equally soulful. Click here for the official IFC site where you can have a taste of the sights and sounds of the film.

felix-vallotton-le-ballon-1899I particularly enjoy the ending. As Simon goes on a school trip to the art gallery of the Musée d’Orsay, the children gather on the floor to talk about Félix Vallotton’s 1899 painting Le Ballon, he leans back, slightly removes himself from his school mates, and lays on his back. As he looks up to the glass canopy of the museum ceiling, he sees it again, the red balloon, that omnipresence, watching over him, removed yet engaged, far away, yet ever so near.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

Other Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Conversation with Juliette Binoche

Tuffing it out at TIFF14

Summer Hours (l’Heure d’été) by Olivier Assayas

Yasujiro Ozu and the Art of Aloneness

***

Like Father, Like Son (2013): Parent and Child Reunion

I had wanted to see this Japanese film since it came out last year. Missed it at TIFF13 last September, its North American premiere after winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize in May. Glad it has finally arrived on Netflix, reaching a much wider audience than just festival goers, deservedly.

Like Father Like Son

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda wrote the screenplay based on a disturbing premise: what if after six years of raising your son, the hospital where he was born contacted you and told you that your child was switched at birth, and of course, they sent their apology.

The hospital officials do not take this lightly. DNA tests are done to confirm. They have a lawyer with them, arrange to have you meet the other parents, mediate and ease the proposed switch back, which they recommend with a six-month preparation period, preferably before the boys start grade one in school. They even find out who the nurse is that made the error; due to her own frustrations at the time she knowingly made the switch. Of course, she is deeply sorry for what she had done and duly prosecuted. Monetary compensations are arranged.

But all the above have absolutely nothing to do with easing the shock and alleviating the trauma afflicted upon the families. Formality and legality do not soothe the pain; apologies and money cannot compensate for the abrupt termination of relationships.

Director Kore-eda has treated the subject matter with much tenderness and charm. The cinematography is stylish, the children and adults are all captured in a realistic manner with splashes of endearing humour.

The two families come from very different social strata, and the two boys have been raised in opposite parenting styles. Interestingly, only one of the families seems to take this news much harder. Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a successful professional who spends most of his time in the glass towers of Tokyo busy at work. His son Keita (Keita Nonomiya), an only child, is raised in a protective environment. Mother Midori (Machiko Ono) is loving but also ambivalent about a husband who puts his career over his family.

The other family is a shop owner in a rural part of the country, their son Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) is the eldest of three children. Father Yudai Saiki (Rirî Furankî) is every child’s dream. He spends his days playing with his children, fixes their toys, and exerts no rules, albeit Mom Yukari (Yoko Maki) might wish he could have spent more time working.

What makes a father? What makes a son? Fatherhood and bloodline tend to supersede all other factors in a patriarchal society like Japan. But the film reflects the point of view that not all families necessarily embrace such a value. Further, apparently there are different parenting styles even in a homogeneous Japanese society.

If there is ever a Japanese version of the movie Boyhood as we have seen here from Richard Linklater, Hirokazu Kore-eda would be the ideal person to direct it. Like Father Like Son follows his previous work I Wish (2011) in its sensitive and incisive depiction of a boy’s heart and yearning. He can tear apart the facade of societal formality–but in a most tender way–and lay bare the hopes and needs, the essence of parents child relationships.

I must give credits to Johann Sebastian Bach, and the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. The beginning of Bach’s Goldberg Variations has been used in numerous films, but every time the soulful slow moving piano melody comes out, I am moved, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, and in so many different genres of films. Just from memory, I can think of The English Patient (1996), Hannibal (2001), Shame (2011). It is so effective in augmenting cinematic moments without becoming clichéd.

Here, the Aria is well placed as director Kore-eda uses it as a motif to spur us into deeper thoughts. What makes a father, a son? What is more important, blood or relationships? What is the role of a wife and mother in a patriarchal society? What is the purpose of giving birth and bringing up a child? What is fulfilling and meaningful to us as human beings? Indeed, a motif that can strike a universal chord of resonance that transcends cultures.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples