Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 20, 2022 2:01 pm 
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COVID disrupts the life of an art school student

Ribbon is the first feature directed, scripted and starred in by actor Rena Nonen, who goes by the stage name Non. It is one of the rare Japanese films that acknowledges the present issue of the COVID pandemic. This is discussed in an article about COVID and Japanese movies by Mark Schilling in The Japan Times.

It is the winter of 2020, and an art school graduation project that had taken a year to complete can no longer be showcased at its planned venue because of COVID-19. Art school is closed down, and Itsuka Asakawa (Rena Nonen) lugs a bunch of wrapped up canvases back to her little apartment (she's got her own apartment), complaining all the way. The apartment is an ungodly mess - and how bad it is to be stuck in a small apartment alone with that: Itsuka's art school friend is tidy and gets up at six a.m. Itsuka's major project, a big painting of a grand girl hung with paper shreds is enshrined at the center of her room. But while this is home in a way, it's also lonely, and nothing quite makes sense anymore.

The strongest and most shocking sequence is the visit of Itsuka's mother (Misayo Haruki) who, while straightening up the apartment, unbeknownst to Itsuka throws the big painting in the trash because she thinks it's junk. And that isn't the end of the humiliating things this ultra-irritating okka-san says about her daughter and her ambitions to her face. Moreover when she learns she made a mistake she won't apologize. It's excruciating.

Dad comes the next day to check up on their daughter and his visit is more purely comical - a "social distancing" device he's brought like a giant Dalinian crutch, which got him stopped by the police, and jars of fruit jelly which are to be consumed at one go. More visits from Itsuka's younger sister and her - dare we say? - more talented art school friend Hirai (Rio Yamashita) follow, and an inexplicable secret invasion by the two young women into the closed art school premises, thereby risking expulsion, where Itsuka and Hiriai partly gleefully, partly tearfully destroy Hirai's big painting project, a surreal landscape, presumably because it's too big to remove from the studio. But still, why?

A charming, if somewhat fey, episode is that of the man (or tall boy) in the park, whom Hirai and Itsuka think is a creepy weirdo, surely vastly overreacting, until gradually he reveals that he is, in a big twist of fate, not only Tanaka (Daichi Watanabe), the middle school classmate whose praise of Itsuka's artwork was decisive, but also a neighbor who lives in her apartment building. This oh-so-tentative rapprochement is a little pathetic - Japanese shyness at its most extreme - but is also sort of heartwarming in a slightly kitsch way, providing all sorts of hitherto missing hope: of art supporters, of a boyfriend, of tentative human company, even under COVID. The way Itsuka runs around and spies on Tanaka trying to see him with his mask off at a distance before she's sure he is who he says he is seems odd and exaggerated but probably makes sense within the culture and may be a natural part of pandemic comedy.

The movie is full of tweeness that makes Non seem very much a Japanese Miranda July and is pretty off-putting, at least for an older male Western viewer (and Miranda July non-fancier), but it's nonetheless impressive, relevant, and perhaps even brave. It shows the strange disruptiveness of the COVID pandemic's early stages and particularly how students' lives have been disrupted, and not only that but examines the fragility of an artistic calling. Maybe Itsuka hasn't the talent or the motivation to continue: but would we take on the odious role of the unsupportive, uncomprehending mother? Some art work - no, nearly all art work - in one way or another requires some kind of community to flourish. So does humanity, pretty much. The "ribbons" seemed a nonessential magic realism element thrown in to elevate Itsuka's experience to a more spiritual level - but they may be a valid representation of the transcendent element that art provides so maybe they're not a bad idea, after all.

Ribbon,, 115 mins., debuted at Shanghai June 2021. Screened for this review as part of the July 15-31, 2022 New York Asian Film Festival. East Coast Premiere

NYAFF SHOWING: Thur., Jul. 21, 2022, 4:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater.

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