Naomi Kawase is one of those directors who usethe medium of film to work through their obssessions. In her case,these include fractured families, the aftermath of a loved one's deathor disappearance, rural Japanese traditions, the spiritual luminosityof the elderly and infirm.
Luckily for audiences - or at least forpatient audiences - Kawase is also a consumate, original filmmaker,with a talent for delicate emotional shading, made all the moreauthentic by her near-documentary style.
TheMourning Forest, which screened in competition at Cannes, is a film inwhich very little happens; but it's also a film of great emotionalimpact, with a vision of the interdependence of man and nature that isthe equal of anything in Terence Malick.
As always, it takes a while toadapt to the director's laconic plotting and characterisation, and oneneeds a leap of faith to get through the apparently inconsequentialfirst third of this story about the bond that forms between an elderlyman suffering from senile dementia and the young woman who nurses him.
But the final section of the film - consisting entirely of a long walkin the forest of the title - was one of the most impressive hours ofcinema to unspool at the 2007 edition of the festival.
Whetherit will broaden Kawase's slender base of admirers is debatable. ThoughThe Mourning Forest has the muscle of Dreamachine behind it (it wasexecutive produced by Hengemeh Panahi under the pre-merge CelluloidDreams banner), this is a film that requires a good deal of staminafrom cine-literate viewers.
But in territories with strong arthousesectors - like France, where distributor Haut et Court plans to releaseat the end of October - Kawase's latest should see some action. InJapan, auteurs like Kawase or her mentor Hirokazu Kore-eda enjoy asucces d'estime, but box-office takings are generally slim.
Thestory revolves around a young woman, Machiko (Machiko Ono), who takeson a job as a carer in a small-scale, state-of-the-art home for theelderly in the mountains east of the city of Nara. Here she slowlydevelops a bond with Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), an elderly patient with anandrogynous, holy-fool face, who is in the advanced stages of dementia.
It soon becomes clear that the good-hearted but troubled Machiko haslost a son - and that she blames herself for his death. We mightinterpret her move to the home as a penitential retreat from the world,but the director's handheld, fly-on-the-wall charting of life in thisremote, serene community is in no hurry to push interpretations: thecamera simply follows the daily routine until the point when Machiko isgiven permission to take Shigeki out for an excursion.
WhenMachiko's car hits a ditch, the determined, surprisingly fit Shigekieludes his minder and scoots off. So begins a chase, with Machikorunning after her charge and the camera following Machiko as shefinally catches up with Shigeki in a watermelon field. There isevidence of human activity - a scarecrow, farm gates, crops - but nopeople, and it soon becomes clear that this edge-of-civilisation ruralemptiness is the bridge to a more purely symbolic space in the film andthe odd couple's relationship, as they enter a dark, primeval forest.
Machiko now agrees to be led by an increasingly energised Shigeki,because she has realised that he is heading somewhere that has anassociation with his long-dead wife. Gradually the balance ofdependence between nurse and patient tips, as night falls and arainstorm breaks over the forest.
Apartfrom one misguided dream-dance sequence, Kawase embeds the film'ssymbolic structure in an uncompromisingly realistic style: the reticentcamera gives both actors and viewers space, and the two leads arecompletely believable.
This is the film's main strength: thetemptations of cute-loonie schmaltz and heavily-flagged symbolism areboth avoided, and scenes are constantly teetering between naturalismand allegory, as when Machiko holds up her mobile phone amidst thetrees like a spirit-channelling talisman.
David Vranken's sparse sounddesign contrbutes to the effect, using heightened natural sounds likebirdsong and rainfall to stress the otherworldly status of this forestodyssey, which ends on a moving note of spiritual release andredemption.
Written and directed by