Naomi Kawase, director of Cannes award-winner The Mourning Forest, tells Jason Gray why the elements are on her side.

A dense forest. A young woman follows a wild-haired old man as they struggle upwards through thick underbrush. They are covered in mud and sweat. The young woman helps the man with his hulking rucksack, its contents a mystery. Where will this battle against the elements take them'

It is a sequence that typifies the work of Japan's Naomi Kawase, a film-maker heavily influenced by the natural world. Her latest film, The Mourning Forest, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last month, earning comparisons with Terrence Malick. It is a deceptively simple film about the relationship between a senile old widower and a young care-giver who lost her child in an accident.

'A main theme of this film is life and death, but the story started when my grandmother, who brought me up, started to show signs of senility,' Kawase explains.

'The nursing and care of senile people became one of my concerns, but I needed a character who could balance the sadness of somebody who's been longing for his wife for 30 years. I thought it would have to be someone who lost their child. That was the genesis.'

Filmed in sequence to add gravity to the performances, the woodland scenes were no walk in the park. 'There were leeches, snakes and bees - dangerous creatures that we had to deal with.'

Surprisingly, weather was not a problem. 'When I wished for lightning and rain, it came. When I wanted some kind of light quality in the evening, it came. I think I'm the kind of director where the weather is always on my side,' Kawase states proudly.

Nature is not only a strong presence in Kawase's films, but her past experience on the Croisette as well. 'When the announcement was made that I'd won the Camera d'Or for Moe No Suzaku (in 1997), I felt a strong wind blow in from the sea. It was a film I made for the bird god of Suzaku and it was as if this god flew all the way to Cannes, across the ocean, to greet me and to celebrate my achievement. We all raised our glasses and toasted the film.'

That was 10 years ago at Cannes' 50th edition. Kawase's third feature, Shara, also competed for the Palme d'Or in 2003. One of Japan's precious few female directors, Kawase is active in the fields of documentary, TV commercials and music videos but her very personal features only garner a small, if devoted, audience at home. Abroad, her films have won awards at Rotterdam and Locarno and retrospectives have been held in Italy and France.

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