Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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NOBUHIRO SUWA: VOICES IN THE WIND 風の電話 (Kaze no Denwa 2019) - JAPAN CUTS 2020


A girl at last confronts her grief, long after Fukushima

Nobuharu Suwa, whose last movie starred Jean-Pierre Léaud, has been working in France for eighteen years "because of the French funding system, which supports directors." He returned to Japan for The Wind Telephone (the original title). A man put a white phone booth on the top of a hill in Otsuchi with a disconnected rotary phone to speak to his dead brother. Then a year or so later, Fukushima happened, and this was in the heart of it, ten percent of the population killed. The phone became a place where thousands came to engage in symbolic communication with love ones lost in the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, in which 18,500 were killed or disappeared and 160,000 lost their homes. It becomes the destination of a new journey, followed in this film.

Suuwa's road trip, a series of heartfelt scenes with largely improvised dialogue, follows Haru (the excellent Serena Motola, previously more known as a fashion model), a seventeen-year-old girl who lost her whole family in the tsunami when she was nine. She has been living in HIroshima (incidentally Suwa's home town) with her Aunt Hiroki (Makiko Watanabe). But when that aunt collapses on Haru's first day of her senior year of high school and winds up in the hospital apparently in a coma, it brings back all the sorrow and loss to Haru, and she runs away - back home - in search of her parents and in confrontation of her grief.

Hiroshima itself was seriously damaged by heavy rains in 2018, which caused over 1,200 landslides. The first man who helps the now lost, mute Haru is a worker with an aging mother who barely survived these.

Initially Haru is silent as a stone, but certain things gradually bring her out. First among these is the senile mother of the man who rescues her collapsed on a road, who takes her hand and speaks to her, remembering her experience of the atom bomb as a child, and still ashamed at her curiosity about the bones of a loved one. Then, when Haru hitchhikes, a bearded man and his pregnant sister pick her up. They take her for a good restaurant meal and later, the mother lets Haru feel her baby stirring inside her, which causes her to speak.

By coincidence, a man who then rescues her from marauding teenage boys is Morio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a devastated former nuclear worker now living in a van who himself lost his family in Fukushima's destruction. He consents to take her back home, on a circuitous route through Tokyo. Morio is searching for a Kurdish refugee who, after helping with the Fukushima cleanup, has been detained as an alien. (As Hadfield 's Japan times review points out, this film is also "concerned with the idea of home".)

Unlike the bland Fukushima 50, this often mute film speaks out against the bad handling of the disaster through the legendary Toshiyuki Nishida, who cries out against the discriminatory treatment of locals and the nuclear firm TEPCO's failures and corruption.

From the beginning, Suwa gets at something elemental and cinematic beyond scripts and scores, a kind of intense, pure experience. The statuesque Motola is basic to this, her mysterious, Garboesque silence, her sad eyes, her lightly freckled face.

Among the many cinematic statements about Fukushima 3/11 from Japan this is one that's memorably authentic and moving because it's so simple.

Voices in the Wind / 風の電話, 140 mins., debuted internationally Feb. 2020 at Berlin (reviewed there by Gavin Blair for Hollywood Reporter) and featured at Taipei Jun. 2020.. It opened theatrically Jan. 2020 in Japan. Screened for this review as part of the all-online 2020 edition of New York's Japan Cuts festival.
The festival is entirely online this year. Anyone in the US can watch it, paying a small fee for each individual film, from July 17-30, 2020. Go HERE to access the films

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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