Saturday, April 23, 2016

192. Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s spellbinding documentary feature film “El botón de nácar” (The Pearl Button) (2015): A powerful, poetic essay interlinking water, memory, buttons, and genocide in Chile’s history

The Pearl Button is one of the most thought-provoking and visually stunning documentaries ever made. The incredible narration of the film, which deservedly won Patricio Guzmán the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival, connects up anthropology, geography, history, meteorology and cosmology  relating to a single country—Chile. If one has not seen this movie, one would be aghast at the very scope of connecting such diverse subjects. The amazing thing about The Pearl Button is that the facts presented are correct and they do connect up as Guzmán presents it. In case you still do not buy the connections made by Guzmán, you will be enthralled by the magical cinematography of Katell Djian. And Katell Djian is immensely talented and reminds one of the abilities of cinematographer Ron Fricke’s contribution to Godfrey Reggio’s brilliant 1982 feature length documentary Koyaanisqatsi.

The magical cinematography of Katell Djian

The Pearl Button begins with the examination of a drop of water caught in a block of quartz some 3000 years ago. Early in the film, Guzmán states in his narration the theme of the film that follows: “Water is the essence of life and it remembers.” Now, that’s an odd statement but if you view this remarkable film up to its end, the Guzmán statement does fall into place.

It is indeed true that water on earth was a result of cosmic events and there is some evidence that humans might have evolved from aquatic life forms. The ancient natives of Chile were water nomads moving from one island to another along its 785,000 mile coastline (data according to The World Resources Institute, next only to Canada, USA, Russia, and Indonesia) on small canoe-like boats.
By the end of the film, Guzmán extends his argument “They say water has a memory. I believe it also has a voice.

Melting ice on the shores of southern Chile

Magical cinematography of water

The importance of water for Chile as a country is further explored with amazing facts in The Pearl Button. Chile has the driest desert in the world—the Atacama Desert. (This desert made of sterile soil receives less than 1.5 cm of rain per annum, compared to other American deserts such as the Death Valley that receives more than 25 cm of rain per annum.) Ironically not far from the desert is the deep Pacific Ocean. However,  the Atacama Desert was found to be ideal place to study the cosmos with radio telescopes at an internationally funded observatory facility known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Intriguingly, Guzman points to evidence that the ancient natives of Chile had believed in life after death on earth in the cosmos and thus painted their bodies with dots and stripes to signify celestial bodies. His commentary then wonders how we are studying the cosmos while neglecting what lies in the depths of the Pacific. Of course, Guzmán reveals the most unnerving part only in the third part of the film—the Pacific Ocean’s “memory.”

A small segment of an artist's view of Chile's incredible shoreline,
breathtakingly captured by the film's director and cinematographer

The Pearl Button can be divided into three segments. The first is about the importance of water to Chile geographically and the cultural affinity of the natives of Chile in the past to the cosmos.  The mid-portion of the movie is devoted to how the natives were exploited by European settlers and missionaries including a historically real native called Jemmy Button, who for the price of a “Pearl Button” agreed to be taken to England and be transformed into a gentleman. Subsequently, he returned to Chile disillusioned, only to take off his western clothes and seek acceptance amongst his own kin. The third and final portion deals with the Pinochet regime that brutally crushed the democratically elected Allende government that had sought to give back the natives their pride and possessions. The Pinochet regime had dumped hundreds of its political opponents after torturing them in the Pacific Ocean tied to iron rails to avoid detection in the future. One such rail is retrieved with a button on the clothing of the tortured individual still intact. The oceans that gave life to people on the mainland had ironically become a cemetery during the Pinochet regime in the Seventies. The Pearl Button takes you though the full circle of the tragic history of Chile.

A button retrieved from the Pacific Ocean attached to the clothing of
a Pinochet regime opponent clinging to a rusted iron rail

The Pearl Button is not merely a film with amazing photography and an interesting narration.  It includes revealing interviews with the surving natives of Chile. It includes acted bits of Jimmy Button in England. Like Koyaanisqatsi, this work of Guzmán is a treat to watch. It informs and it entertains. The first part of the film The Pearl Button is exquisite, to say the least. The citation of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival sums it all up: “Patricio Guzmán's documentary shows a moving history of the people of Patagonia and Chile reminding us that human suffering and injustice go beyond political and social systems. Using water not only as a symbolic tool but also as a natural element it puts the concrete story of the region's victims, including pre-colonial indigenous persons and those who opposed Pinochet's regime, into the vast perspective of humankind."

Old photograph of Chilean natives with bodies painted with stripes and dots:
 they believed in life after death among the stars

Chile’s Guzmán joins Germany’s Hans-Jurgen Syberberg and USA’s Geoffrey Reggio as one of the finest thought-provoking documentary filmmakers in the history of cinema. If Pinochet’s coup achieved one good thing, it was to gift the world the cinema of Raul Ruiz and Guzmán that made people all over the world to recall the horrors of the Pinochet regime and to learn from it.

P.S. The Pearl Button is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2015. The film won the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival. It also won the “In Spirit of Freedom Award” at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Koyaanisqatsi is on the author’s top 100 films list.

Friday, April 15, 2016

191. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “An” (Sweet Bean/Sweet Red Bean Paste) (2015): Zen and the art of making pancakes

Globally, Naomi Kawase is not as well known as are Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Yasijiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara and Shohei Imamura. Ms Kawase is an odd one to be included among those stalwarts. First, she is the only woman among all those men. Second, she is the only one with a non-Japanese first name, while her filmmaking is quintessentially Japanese, harking back to nature and traditions of the Japanese people. And finally her filmmaking is distinct from the rest—each feature film with strong female characters, each feature film that exudes respect for elderly folks and their accumulated wisdom, each feature film stressing on equilibrium of relationships between human beings and nature. Finally, her reflective and philosophical style of filmmaking unintentionally is very close to that of the US director Terrence Malick. She could well be considered Japan’s answer to Malick.

Lonely Sentaro makes a living making dorayaki sandwiches with "an" and
selling them his customers to pay off his debts

Like Malick and the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman, the majority of her eight feature films are built on her own original screenplays, mostly without the help of a co-scriptwriter.  Only two Kawase films are adapted from novels, Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste and Hanezu (2011).  Only one of her eight feature films—Nanayo (2008) utilizes the services of a co-scriptwriter. This fact is not trivia, if one compares it to the acclaimed body of Kurosawa’s output which is almost entirely built on ideas of novelists, short-story writers, and top-notch gifted scriptwriters. Kurosawa’s success was considerably due to the following 10 talented scriptwriters he worked with over the years:  Hideo Oguni (12 films) Ryuzo Kikushima (9 films), Shinobu Hashimoto (8 films), Eijiro Hisaita (4 films), Masato Ide (3 films), Ishira Honda (3 films),  Keinosuke Uekusa (2  films), Keiji Matsuzaki,  Senkichi Taniguchi, and Yuri Nagibin (1 film each). In contrast, Kawase’s films are by and large products of her own ideas, spoken words, and stories, captured on film.

Naomi Kawase made two major shifts from her usual pattern of filmmaking for Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste. First, having made only eight feature films, this is Kawase’s second attempt to adapt a novel for a movie.  And for the first time, this feature film turns out to be a commercial success as well! Second, this is her first feature film that has the entire action captured on film in the city of Tokyo, far away from the Nara prefecture in Japan which has been her favourite filming location. (One of her earlier films, Nanayo, did have some scenes filmed in Thailand.)

Wakana, Tokue and Sentaro bond as a virtual family,
listening to birds and enjoying small pleasures of nature that sorround them 

Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste has three unrelated individuals of three different age groups in Tokyo bonding as a family. What brings the three together is “An” the Japanese name for the sweet red bean paste, an essential ingredient for dorayaki, a popular hot pancake sandwich. One individual cooks the bean paste, one sells the dorayaki, and the third is a regular customer at the dorayaki stall. The film is a delightful tale of how the trio come together and how their lives change. The closest works of cinema to this Japanese film is the Oscar winning 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast and the 2000 UK/US film Chocolat The key element that the entire Kawase's body of films have that was missing in both Babette’s Feast and Chocolat was what human beings need to observe and learn from the harmony in nature.  There is a deep message in the Japanese film beyond the story line: that a person’s worth is not to be measured by one’s career but in one’s being and that inner joy can be experienced with the help of our sensory faculties in the natural world that surrounds us. That is very close to Buddhist philosophy.

It would be too simplistic to describe the film as a mere tale of three individuals bonding over a confectionary item and finding a virtual family in unexpected circumstances. The film is drenched in philosophy and the experience of viewing the film is close to what a reader would feel after finishing the Robert M. Pirsig novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a tale of people learning from each other.  

In an interaction with the media at the Cannes film festival, Kawase pointed out “No one can live alone.... I get the impression that in today's societies people create their own barriers. In a broader context, these barriers could make us rethink the idea of getting rid of 'the other'. Sometimes a person looks very angry from afar. But if we get close enough, we see that he is crying. That person may only seek attention and affection of others.” That encapsulates Kawase’s body of cinematic work, not just Sweet Red Bean Paste.

Tokue makes the dorayakis as Sentaro, her boss, is late for work

The virtual family in the film is made up of three “misfits” in today’s society. The lead male character is Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), possibly in his late twenties, divorced, who after injuring someone in a drunken brawl, was imprisoned for it, and had to pay a huge sum of money to the grievously injured man. We learn his dour countenance is a reflection of the hard work he has to put in to pay back the debt. The greedy owners of the dorayaki stall where he works are an added headache. Sentaro is not a bad individual, but life is not easy for a freed jailbird with a debt and no family. The lead female character is Tokue (Kirin Kiki) a cured leprosy patient in her Seventies with disfigured hands, who by a quaint Japanese law is not supposed to exit her sanatorium. Again this character is a lovely individual who cannot interact with the rest of the world for no fault of her own and her only “family” is reduced to her compatriots at the sanatorium.  The third character of importance is Wakana (Kyara Uchida, the real life granddaughter of actress Kirin Kiki) a sensitive and curious school girl who loves to eat doroyakis and dreams of going abroad. Her only family is a mother who does not give her much attention. Durian Sukegawa’s novel and Kawase’s film bring together the trio of misfits without a family as they meld into a new virtual family.

Sweet Red Bean Paste as any Kawase film presents characters that are aware of the natural world surrounding them. Even in Tokyo, a vertical concrete city, Kawase focuses on the cherry trees in bloom between buildings  and a yellow canary chirping away on one of the branches.  This was perhaps more pronounced in her earlier works The Mourning Forest, Hanezu and Still the Water, which were less accessible to comprehend for a casual filmgoer. In Sweet Red Bean Paste, the silences, the sounds of leaves in the wind and even footsteps, are to be savoured as they hold meaning for the tale, unlike most other films. Tokue’s last message to her young “family” is not to regret the isolation in society that unfortunate events can dictate in your life. She advises the young “family” members the necessity of living life appreciating the wonders of life. In the film, Tokue says, “Everything in the world has a story to tell.” She talks to the beans that she cooks, she listens to them cook, and has tales about beans cooking to narrate.  She is grateful to Sentaro to have given her an opportunity to cook ‘an’ after all these years and watch the public savour the fruits of her labour. Sentaro in turn is grateful to Tokue for making his business boom. Wakana is grateful to Sentaro who gives away the imperfect dorayakis to her gratis. These simple actions have a larger effect and meaning in the film.

Sentaro sells his dorayaki under a cherry tree amidst nature--he has learnt
from the advice of Tokue

Two details need to be stated. Naomi Kawase was left by her own parents and brought up by her grandparents, which is probably why recurring stress on family and respect for elders underscore her films. Actress Kirin Kiki, who plays the cured leprosy patient Tokue, had battled cancer herself and got cured.

While Sweet Red Bean Paste is a major work of Naomi Kawase, a delightful work exuding positive philosophy of life, and relatively easy to comprehend, The Mourning Forest and Still the Water remain her more complex and satisfying works. Nevertheless, Naomi Kawase is one of the most important filmmakers alive and making films today.

P.S.  Sweet Red Bean Paste is on the author’s top 10 films of 2015 list. The films of Naomi Kawase The Mourning Forest, Hanezu and Still the Water mentioned in the above review—have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Sweet Red Bean Paste has won awards at Sao Paulo, Cork, and Valladolid film festivals and the Best Actress award for Kirin Kiki at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Ms Kawase is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers