Japan-set meditation about the connection between strangers wins top prize at Jeonju
Dir/scr: Tatsunari Ota. Japan. 2022. 104mins
Films that foreground touristic wandering are usually filled with the kind of awe-inspiring landmarks or unique cultural spaces that transport protagonists out of their comfort zones. Yet Tatsunari Ota’s convention-defying There Is A Stone soon strays from this path. Even when it does segue into one of the tropes of the travel narrative – the chance encounter between two strangers – it proceeds to play with audience preconceptions. In terms of its central dynamic and dialogue, Ota has crafted a minimalistic flipside to the walk-and-talk of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) in that his two-hander shows a connection tentatively develop by way of near wordless outdoor activities rather than through topic-hopping repartee.
Quietly announces Ota as a name to watch
There Is A Stone is Otas’s second feature following his graduation film Bundesliga (2016) and it quietly announces him as a name to watch. The winner of the International Competition prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival, following berths in Tokyo FILMeX and Berlin, it should receive further exposure at Asian-themed or indie-focused events. It’s a subtly entrancing piece of slow cinema with modest art-house and streaming potential, so may well catch the eyes of specialist distributors.
A woman from Tokyo (An Ogawa) is visiting a town in the rural suburbs and not having much luck locating the ruins of a castle that she has read about online. The locals she meets are friendly enough. An elderly man gives her a lift in his van and a group of children invite her to join them for a game of soccer. Still, her curiosity about this place is dwindling as it lacks any attractions aside from some nice scenic views. She is soon drifting around without much purpose or enthusiasm.
Yet this seemingly unfulfilling outing takes an unexpected turn when she goes to a stream where a man (Tsuchi Kano) is skimming stones on the other side. Following some miscommunication, he wades over and eagerly ingratiates himself without offering any personal information. They end up spending the day together wandering downstream, with the woman’s mood oscillating between enjoying the man’s amiable company and being suspicious of his motives.
There Is A Stone is not exactly anti-narrative cinema, even if its narrative can best be described as slight. Nonetheless, Ota has taken a deceptive approach that serves as a tacit interrogation of audience expectations. Most viewers will expect the woman’s reason for visiting the town to be explained and details about the man’s life to be teased out, but Ota doesn’t build to any revelations of that sort. The pairing of a phone-checking urbanite and a local who is in tune with his surroundings suggests a comedic romance, but Ota doesn’t oblige. There are also ominous hints that the woman could be in danger, her bouts of unease amplified by subjective camerawork, but Ota doesn’t go down that road, either. Instead, what Ota captures is a particular experience where pleasure is tempered by a measure of trepidation and simple human interactions can only be truly savoured in retrospect.
Echoing the early works of Kelly Reichardt, lengthy passages amble along without dialogue or feature relatively humdrum exchanges. In tandem with the sedate tempo established by Keiko Okawa’s editing, this enables the viewer to be as drawn into by the man’s penchant for playing childlike games with rocks, sticks and sand, much like his initially reluctant companion. There is a sense of time almost being suspended so that the inevitable darkening of the sky feels abrupt.
It’s shot in plainly hypnotic fashion by cinematographer Yuji Fukaya who employs the Academy ratio to create a sense of enclosure in the rural setting while capturing ripples of complex emotions and developing a relatable uncertainty that ruptures the delicate spell in a quietly heart-breaking manner. Although a set of suitably low-key arrangements by composer Shu Oh is sparingly utilised, the primary accompaniment here is Naru Sakamoto’s sound design which accentuates the gentle lapping of the stream and other natural elements to trance-like effect.
Ogawa and Tsuchi Kano are entirely unaffected in their nameless roles, beautifully essaying a pair of yearning yet cautious souls without the need for backstory. This fleeting friendship has a very particular rhythm, but those who go with the flow will find There Is A Stone to be a rewarding excursion that discretely extracts especially real moments from the apparently mundane.
Production company: IPPO
Contact: Tatsunari Ota email@example.com
Producers: Tatsunari Ota, Sachihiko Tanaka, Kotaro Kimura
Editing: Keiko Okawa
Cinematography: Yuji Fukaya
Music: Shu Oh
Main cast: An Ogawa, Tsuchi Kano