Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 28, 2020 4:21 pm 
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Of time and the river

This ambitious and beautiful Japanese historical film was directed by Joe Odagiri with cinematography by Wong Kar-wai's superb muse Chris Doyle and lovely but a bit obtrusive music by Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan. The forty-four-year-old Odagiri's Japanese Wikipedia page is immense. As Deborah Young tells us in her Hollywood Reporter review, at home Odagiri's known as a "gothic rebel with a reliably huge female fan base," and he has been involved in many films and TV series. He wants to do something art house and impressive here, and he does, if it might have used some tightening up here and there. He may be inspired in his calm setting and aging, simple protagonist by Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring by Kim Ki-duk whom he worked with on the latter's Dream, but Akira Emori's old boatman Toichi doesn't spout Zen wisdom like Kim's old dude. He's just a stoical, unlettered old man who's modest and a bit lost but an integral part of a beautiful, natural place.

Toichi is always ready to row village-to-town passengers of all sorts, loud or quiet, offensive or polite, across the wide mountain valley river in his flatboat whenever asked. He says it takes three days to learn the oars, three years to learn the pole. It's all he knows how to do, and he does it tirelessly and lives in a shack at the bend in the river. His frequent companion is a loud, goofy young man called Genzo (Nijirô Murakami, a media cutie in Japan, here doing a nice character turn), who provides such delicacies as bean paste baked on summer rocks.

But remember Marvell's "To His Coy Mistreess, "at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near"? At Toichi's back, in the distance, rarely seen, he always hears the sounds of a bridge building over the river. Genzo hates the idea of faster, busier people, loss of the few coins for his crossings for Toichi, of his livelihood. They dream, once vividly, in black and white, and violently, of attacking the bridge and its builders and stopping the whole thing. This never happens. At the end, the bridge is built (it's surprisingly pretty, a soft red), the town and village people rush back and forth, and Toichi is a back number, advised to take it easy and not think too much by the doctor.

The Japanese are great at historical, costume cinema, and this film set in the Meiji era (late 19th to 1912) shot by the master Christopher Doyle sets an enchanting mood. This is also a nation of storytellers. Americans saw this combination epitomized early in a US import triumph from Janus Films, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which skillfully blends three Ryunosuke Akutagawa stories within a haunting mood. This is not that. So often I longed for the brilliant storytelling this movie hints at, feeling it has the material, and just needs to rearrange it a bit and cut out the fat - or "kill his darlings," since surely there are numerous beautiful passages Joe was loathe to part with.

Nijirô Murakami says somewhere a Jim Jarmusch film is his favorite movie, and one of the other key players, who plays Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase) was in Jarmusch's Mystery Train, so it may make sense that I thought of Dead Man, the way its incidents flow from one scene to the next and with death, like here, hanging around the corner. They Say Nothing Stays the Same has very good scenes in this glamorous package, but they don't quite mesh enough, and there's too much space between them. Scenes are vivid and good nonetheless.

The first big one, disturbing the generally tranquil life, comes when Toichi's flatboat runs into a lump of something floating in the water. It's a dead girl. Only when he lugs her to his shack, Genzo discovers she's not dead, she's breathing. She may be called "Fu," which Toichi thinks it would be nice if it meant "wind," but IMDb knows her only as "Girl" (Ririka Kawashima). Toichi treats her wounds with Genzo's mix of mudwort and bear bile, but they fear she was hit on the head, and when she finally speaks she has forgotten all about her life. On the river Toichi hears all rumors and there is one of a family massacred at Ichinomiya with one girl carried off. They think Fu may be the girl. Her muteness seems to confirm this. Later she begins to speak, then runs off, later comes back and lives with Toichi and eventually becomes his helper. She is dark and knowing. Once, she jumps off the boat into the water. Toichi divers after her, to rescue her, but in a typically lovely underwater scene, we find she swims like a fish. They live, by the way, off fish-on-a-stick sandwiches. Later the story about a massacre at Ichinomiya turns out to be just a story.

We meet, with Toichi, rude, impatient people who treat him abominably, including some bridge engineers, and some nasty little boys who throw stones and mock, all giving a sense of evil in the world. But ultimately the message is ecological. Since the bridge is building, the water is dirtier, and without clear water there are no fireflies. "Fu" (Girl) says fireflies are more important than bridges. We meet also, with Toichi, a girl ghost, in ragged grey clothing - another thing the Japanese excel at is ghosts - and she says she is watching him. Maybe she's going to take him away, with the tides, with the seasons.

It all ends, in a way, with winter, which brings astonishing scenes of snow that show the region where this film takes place is more beautiful, grand, stark, and mountainous than it seemed in the closer, lusher greenness of summer.

Before the snow there is a great storm with heavy rain when the straw period raincoats come out. The Girl and Toichi sit huddled in his shack when Nihei, a longtime passenger and friend, arrives carrying the body of his dead father, asking the favor of Toichi to aid him in fulfilling a promise. His father spent his life hunting animals; Toichi ferried him to his hunting grounds and considered him "a great man." His last wish was to have his body offered to the animals he hunted to repay those lives he took. But this must be done in secret. So they, with the girl, take the corpse of Nihei's father into a dark and rain-drenched forest across the river. (Here in particular the score of Tigran Hamasyan seems a little too sweet and prominent.)

A Letterboxd contributor comments that the film is "really good for 95%" of the way but in the other 5% chooses to "drive off a cliff" - breaking the calm and peace too much. James Hadfield is similar in The Japan Times when he says Odagiri "can’t quite reconcile the film’s mood-piece feel with his more dramatic urges." This is indeed a challenge in such a long film (two hours and seventeen minutes): ruthless editing might have helped. But, again as Hadfield says, Odagiri is probably too in love with his beautiful cinematography and high quality cast. So was I.

They Say Nothing Stays the Same ある船頭の話, 137 mins., debuted at Venice (in the Giornate degli Autori section), where Odagiri was also present as one of the stars of Lou Ye’s (not as good) competition spy film Saturday Fiction Sept. 2019, also showing at Busan, Montreal, Hong Kong, and Taipei. Screened for this review as part of the virtual , country-wide 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).


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