Dir: Shingo Wakagi. Japan. 2007. 97mins.
Japanese photographer turned director Shingo Wakagi makes a tender homage to his grandfather in an affecting DV miniature that mixes fictionalized reminiscence with documentary touches. Borderline-experimental, the very personal Waltz In Starlight is essentially gentle portraiture with just a hint of narrative content, the film's intelligent, detached plea for inter-generational understanding offering an idiosyncratic update on the Ozu tradition of intimate family drama.
The standout performance by veteran Koishi Kimi - known as a manzai (stand-up comedy) entertainer - makes Wagaki's debut a memorable, if low-key, offering. Waltz In Starlight should find a warm response among more specialised buyers, as well as winning it a solid berth among festivals, especially with a bent for Asian and lo-fi independent cinema.
Wakagi effectively offers a picture of his own background, setting the film in his provincial hometown of Hamamatsu. Back from Tokyo, where he's working as a photographer, young hipster Nobu (Yamaguchi) visits his family home, where his parents testily tolerate the presence of his elderly grandfather (Kimi). Granddad spends most of his time in his room upstairs, practising his drawing - using Playboy magazine for inspiration - and occasionally having raucous drinking-and-singing sessions with his older brother. Nobu, meanwhile, heads into town to hang out with his mentally disabled childhood friends Ei and Hiro (Atsumi and Isobe, to all intents and purposes playing themselves).
At heart, the film is more a gentle, contemplative autobiographical essay than a narrative proper. There is little event as such, but the generally mellow mood livens up in odd episodes, notably when Granddad goes to a bar and enthusiastically hits the bottle with some boisterous young men who are highly impressed by his stamina. The only note of conventional drama comes when Granddad's older brother kills himself, an event that at last reestablishes the bonds between family members: a memorial session on the beach allows Granddad to show off his violin skills, and to sing the tender song that gives the film its title.
Slightly an awkward fit with the overall mood are the documentary sections, featuring to-camera interviews, in which Wakagi films Atsumi and Isobe at their own real-life workplaces. But this is an inventive, insightful and altogether unsentimental film in which the sum - thanks to the cathartic, minor-key ending - is greater than the sum of the parts. The film offers insights aplenty on generational misunderstanding, on the small resentments of family life - Wakagi's own photogaphy nicely catches the cluttered interiors of Nobu's home - and on the tensions between small-town life and the capital, in a subtly excruciating scene in which Nobu and his gauche friends run into one of his
friends from Tokyo.
The digital photography has a frosted, pastel look that enhances the film's poetic abstraction, which runs from lyrical landscapes to small telling details, such as a shot of sand trickling through a violin case. Kimi's genial personality as the cantankerous but life-loving doyen gives the film an energy that compensates for the rather lifeless delicacy of young Yamaguchi, its ostensible lead. An end-credits coda wraps the film poignantly, with real-life video footage of the director's inspiration, his own late grandfather.
Youngtree Films (Jap)
Tohokushinsha Film Corporation (Jap)
Tohokushinsha Film Corporation