Dir: Doris Dorrie, Germany, 2008, 127mins
Doris Dorrie's bittersweet film is a story of mourning and the futility of trying to recover something lost. A Bavarian husband who is nearing retirement loses his wife suddenly, and flies to Japan to visit sites that she never had a chance to see while abiding by his strict routine. Distanced from his own children, Rudi (Wepper) is led to Mount Fuji by an oddly angelic Japanese girl.
Cherry Blossoms should find a small public in Germany and Japan, where it is likely to be seen as a curiosity. US audiences may encounter it on the festival circuit, but are likely to compare it unfavourably with Lost In Translation, another film made by a woman about an older man adrift in Japan in the twilight of his career. Wepper is no Bill Murray, so chances of a breakout hit are nil. Yet in home video, Dorrie's stature is so strong in Germany that anything she makes will have a shelf life.
Cherry Blossoms opens with a death sentence. Doctors in Bavaria tell Trudi (Elsner) that Rudi is ill, with little time to live, and she must tell him. (The very names Rudi and Trudi suggest a fairy tale.) They travel to Berlin, where their aloof children have little time for them, although they do see a performance of Butoh dance that Trudi loves. They then head to the Baltic, where Trudi suddenly dies, and the frayed family relations fall apart under the weight of the crisis. Rudi never learns that he has a terminal illness.
The devastated Rudi journeys to Japan to visit Karl (Bruckner), his son living there, and their ties are chillier than ever, in part because Rudi has packed his wife's clothes, which he wears out of guilt for not doing enough for her while she lived. Wandering around town, Rudi tries the strip joints and 'hostesses,' and comes upon Yu (Irizuki) in the park one day. The two form an odd bond - in the absence of any closeness between Rudi and his children - and they head in Trudi's honour (and in her clothes) to Mount Fuji. This is an odd couple indeed.
Dorrie gives her story of generational distance in a German family the same unease found in Ozu's 1953 Tokyo Story, another grim plot built on the visit of elderly parents and a clear inspiration for this film. Once in Japan, where Rudi's mission becomes quixotically un-German, the tone softens and Dorrie seems to be savouring the cherry blossoms, the free-spirited Yu, and even the crazy kitsch of Japanese cityscapes and railroad stations, shot lyrically by DoP Hanno Lentz.
Buying into Dorrie's story requires appreciating her sense of charm and her fondness for Japan, and her strange twist on gender behaviour. Part of the film's appeal is the way it defies conventional Western practices of mourning the dead. If that isn't persuasive, two hours with Rudi will be a long time.
Bavaria Film International
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Molly von Furstenerg