New Film Explores Family Dynamics with Elegant Grace
Thursday, October 8, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews Still Walking
If you are growing tired of pounding soundtracks and shaky-cam photography you can seek refuge in the new Japanese film "Still Walking." You can listen to my radio feature or read the review.
Hirokazu Kore-Eda¹s latest film "Still Walking" is the antithesis of most contemporary filmmaking. It's slow, quiet, intimate, and focused on the ordinary. But Kore-eda finds something transcendent in the simplicity of his tale. His work here, as in "Nobody Know" and "After Life," recalls the transcendence French filmmaker Robert Bresson displayed in his films. In "Still Walking," the Yokoyamas are a somewhat dysfunctional contemporary Japanese family. But once a year they get together somewhat reluctantly. What brings them together is the anniversary of the eldest son¹s death. Fifteen years ago he saved a young boy but drowned in the process.
Like many familes, the Yokoyama's gather around food. Whether it's preparing the meal or eating it, food is the one thing that brings them all together ¬ at least for a brief moment. But Ryo, the second oldest, gets easily distracted by text messages at the dinner table. Ryo is uncomfortable at his parents' home because he always feels he¹s being compared unfavorably to his dead brother. This trip, he has brought his new wife, a widow with a young son, and this complicates the family dynamic even more.
Kore-eda's decision to use wide, still shots in a family setting will no doubt call to mind the work of Yasujiro Ozu. But the two filmmakers are tonally different. Ozu focused on changes in the family and society in post war Japan with an emphasis on the generations. Kore-eda's film is more focused on the dynamics of a particular family and how the things that drive people crazy make the family unit what it is -- much as the bonds of love. So the mother's need to keep her dead son's room intact may annoy her other children but it defines this family. So Ryo's new stepson is intrigued when he sees his grandma cool down the headstone of her son's grave and talk to him as if he were still alive.
Although brightened by humor and hope, the driving emotion at the end of "Still Walking" is regret. The film is based on Kore-eda's memories of his own family reunions. He says the regret he feels is that of "an ungrateful eldest son who used the demands of his profession to excuse long absences from home." But in chronicling a single day in the life of this family, Kore-eda shows an appreciation for the ordinary things he may have missed. In that respect his film is similar to Thorton Wilder's play "Our Town." Only Kore-eda's family is a bit more dysfunctional.
The film's deceptive simplicity comes through in its title. "Still Walking" conveys a sense of still being alive. Yet there's also a contrast between the word "still" and its more active counterpart "walking" that implies an interesting dynamic. And then there's the notion of a still life or a still photo that the title conveys. The film is indeed like a photo album with each scene being a snapshot or still life. In this scene, playing an old pop ballad during dinner allows for a break in family tensions. But later those tensions are heightened by bitterness as the young boy that was saved fifteen years ago visits the family to express his thanks. When the boy leaves, the parents waste no time expressing what a waste it was to lose their son so this chubby, dull child could live. The father even dismisses him as "useless trash." Kore-eda draws each of his characters with sharp strokes, seeing both their flaws and their virtues and vulnerabilities.
If a picture is worth a thousand words then Kore-eda's film speaks volumes about the ties that bind a family together. His film dazzles with the elegance of simplicity and proves that sometimes the best stories are right in a filmmaker's own backyard.
Companion viewing: "After Life," "Nobody Knows," "Tokyo Story," "A Man Escaped"
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