Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why did Japan's DEPARTURES win last year's Best Foreign Film? And a note on this year's winner

The steal of the Best Foreign Language Film category at last year's Academy Awards ceremony by DEPARTURES (Okuribito), the Japanese entry directed by Yôjirô Takita (shown just below) and written by Kundo Koyama, could only have come as a surprise to someone who had not seen all five films. Besting critics' darlings Waltz With Bashir (from Israel) and The Class (France), not to mention Germany's The Baader Meinhof Complex and Austria's Revanche, this bizarre combination of death, tradition and cello playing did what so many of the winning films in this category have done down the decades: It moved, surprised and enlightened its audience.

Was it the best of these films? Not by a long shot. I'd have ranked them thusly: Baader Meinhof, The Class, Departures, Revanche and Waltz With Bashir (while I liked the latter film, I was not a huge fan: I think the movie would have profited from live action rather than animation, which -- yes -- made it seem unusually dark and brooding (and repetitive) for an animated film but did not begin to offer the complexities and specifics that might have been found in the performances of live actors.

Now that TrustMovies has finally seen all five films (Departures just two weeks ago), the dichotomy he experienced around the time of the awards -- reading all the negatives from most of the "better" critics regarding Departures, yet constantly hearing such good things about the movie from one after another of what he would call the "average" art-house moviegoer, he thinks he understands what was going on here -- and why.

Departures takes as one of its main themes, death. Specifically the death of loved ones in the family. Tradition/ceremony is another important theme, as is music and the playing of the cello. We jump into the story as a tall and attractive Japanese man must leave his job as cellist in a minor orchestra and find another line of work. He ends up as the assistant to a fellow who runs a small town operation performing the tradition of readying corpses for cremation, including the proper clothing, make-up and various rites (these are nothing like us Americans have ever seen). Hence the "enlightening" part of the equation for winning Best Foreign Language Film.

I suspect it is this character's skill with the cello that allows him to succeed so well with the wide-armed movements required to perform the unusual disrobing and dressing of the corpses. In any case, he takes to this strange occupation -- think of it as the Japanese version of our own Six Feet Under cable series (without the embalming) -- like the proverbial duck to water. His wife does not, however, nor does his best friend. They loathe what he is doing, and here the Japanese culture of shame comes into play, and rather pointedly, too.

Yet the families of the dead truly need and love what he brings them as he grows more confident and skillful in performing the ceremony. He is mentored by an old gentleman who owns the establishment, and helped along by the young woman, with her own secret past, who works in the office. That's pretty much the movie, but until you see it and experience for yourself the remarkable ceremony -- and the reactions of the families -- you can't understand how bowled over were Academy members and many of us across America.

Even then, you may be able to resist its charms. My companion did, finding it utterly sanitized and fake. And I myself admit that there was plenty wrong with the movie: the lead, Masahiro Motoki (above, left, also seen in The Mystery of Rampo) as good-looking as he is and deft in his handling of the ceremony, is not a great actor. rather, he's one of those who tends to bug his eyes at key emotional moments and let us do the rest of the heavy lifting. Yet he is often so endearing and beautiful, and handles that special tradition so very well, that you may end up, as did I, forgiving him his tresspasses. The director, too, tend to overstate some of the comedy. And the finale, which is emotional enough already, does not need the incessant inter-cutting between Kobayashi and his wife. Surely the director could have come up with somewhere else to point the camera -- or just cut the scene by half, as the movie is already too lengthy.

Still, I will remember Departures much more vividly -- and probably longer -- than I will any of the other contenders for last year's Best Foreign Film. You owe it to yourself to experience this movie, faults and all.
Now, regarding this year's BFLF award, at this point I've seen four of the nine films that made the short list -- The White Ribbon (Germany), Un Prophete (France), Ajami (Israel--a still from which is shown above), and The Milk of Sorrow (Peru).  The others are El Secreto de Sus Ojos (Argentina), Samson & Delilah (Australia), The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Bulgaria), Kelin (Kazakhstan), and Winter in Wartime (Netherlands).  Of those I've seen, I would pick the Israeli/Palestinian combo Ajami as a shoo-in for a nomination and maybe the prize.  I'll cover it in  detail  next week when it opens at Film Forum.  But for starters its dual pedigree from waring nations makes it prime award material, and while it's dark, it's nowhere near the darkness of last year's Gomorrah (nor nearly as accomplished, either) -- which, though heavily heralded, did not even make the shortlist.   But Ajami offers the triad:  surprise, enlightenment and some moving moments.  I keep hearing marvelous stuff about El Secreto de Sus Ojos, too, and because this one's said to be a classy, mainstream movie, I suspect it may hit the bull's eye with Academy members.  We shall see.

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