The 2009 Portland International Film Festival is underway, and I've been fortunate enough to sit in on a sampling of press screenings. Though my spotty attendance means I can't really offer any comprehensive coverage here on my blog, I can at least share with you what I have seen and make sure to point you to PIFF's website at the NW Film Center.
I will post my capsule reviews no less than the day before the first public screening of each film to give folks time to plan their own attendance schedule. So, expect more updates over the next couple of weeks.
Tokyo Sonata (Japan; dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata begins with Ryûhei (Teruyuki Kagawa, Sukiyaki Western Django), a career salary man in his mid-40s, losing his job. He can't face up to telling his family, and so instead pretends to go to work every day, hanging out in the park and waiting for a new job to materialize. His lie sets off a chain reaction of deception and change in his family. His youngest son Kenji (first-time actor Inowaki Kai) begins to secretly take piano lessons even after being told he can't, and the little smart ass discovers he's actually something of an artist. Meanwhile, the eldest son Takashi (Yû Koyanagi) is far from the screw-up his self-involved father thinks he is, and he makes the grave decision to join the U.S. Army as a foreign volunteer, believing he can protect Japan and, by extension, his family. Trying to sort it out is the longsuffering mother, Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi, Kûchû teien), who sees more than she lets on and tries to help everyone realize their own path, believing that purpose to be her own.
The first 2/3 of the movie play out like a tribute to the old-school films of Yasujiro Ozu. Kurosawa revels in the quiet moments, moving his focus from one family member to the next, letting their individual stories unfold in their own fashion. Koizumi is wonderful as the mother, conveying the inner fatigue through body language and a subtlety of voice even as she maintains total strength on behalf of her children. The young Inowaki Kai is also fantastic as the young boy who has learned to be defensive and obnoxious, but who really yearns for an expression that is more nuanced. I wish we had spent more time with the older boy, too, but then that might have also been one story too many, so Kurosawa ties him more closely to the mother. Throughout, the camera is an unobtrusive presence, maintaining a quiet observance rather than insisting that we recognize the mastery of Kurosawa's shots.
Unfortunately, the final act of Tokyo Sonata goes haywire. Kiyoshi Kurosawa employs one of my biggest storytelling pet peeves, inserting a new, supposedly random element into the plot that strikes a false chord in the otherwise sincere story. (See my tirade against Breillat's Fat Girl for more on this sort of thing.) A bumbling robber enters the family's home and takes Megumi hostage, injecting both violence and broad humor into a movie that has so far stayed grounded. The crook is played by Kôji Yakusho, whom most American viewers will likely recognize from his role in Babel, which is fitting since Kurosawa is trying to make a mini-version of that whole everything-is-connected-and-yet-nothing-is genre in the last half hour of Tokyo Sonata. The experiences of father, mother, and son grow more divergent, hitting their own levels of tragedy and pain before they all finally end up back home. It doesn't work, though. Too much coincidence, too much deus ex machina, and for lack of a better ending, Kiyoshi Kurosawa sells his own film short.
Tokyo Sonata plays on 2/8 and 2/15.
Current Soundtrack: Morrissey, Years of Refusal; Lily Allen, It's Not Me, It's You
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All text (c) 2009 Jamie S. Rich