Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2023 10:41 am 
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Exhausted lovers in a plant-filled room

In Her Room is Japanese screenwriter Chihiro Ito's enigmatic, slow-cinema feature director debut drawn from her own ten-years-in-the-works eponymous novel about a timid young dental student called Susumu (Satoru Iguchi of the pop group King Gnu) who falls in love with Miyako (Fumika Baba), a perpetually exhausted woman who may own a fragrance shop, whose airy, high-ceilinged apartment is filled with so many green plants running up the walls and out onto the balcony to the verdant street Mark Schilling, in his Japan Times review, called it a "forest glen." The door to Apartment "101," this greenery-decorated setting, is usually kept unlocked.

And so others wander in besides Susumu - notably Yoko (Yuumi Kawai), whom the young man befriends and beds in her own darker, more conventional digs, and who accompanies the pair to an avant-garde play production that Ito spends some time recreating. It features a man with giraffe head who other characters come in and devour, behind a draped white sheet. Another visitor to #101 is a bearded young man, who smokes on the balcony, an alternate lover Susumu spies on but doesn't dare to confront.

"Doctor" Susumu (as he's sometimes addressed; he politely calls Miyako "Miyako-san") is seen occasionally standing over an open-mouthed dental patient beside an assistant, but one fears for the patient: the cherubic pop star is more convincing as a shy lover. For some reason he reminded me of the young Terrence Stamp in Pasolini's Teorema. Often Susumu and Miyako are seen lying as if helpless, enervated, semi-comatose, exhausted by unseen love-making, or just made very lazy by the summer heat, on her bare floor draped with a scattering of flowered cloths. These arrangements, and the way they're panned over by the camera of dp Tai Ouchi, can be beautiful. The presence of a pet rabbit, with all the plants, reminded me of the real-life Paris apartment of the gay Norwegian photographer, Markus Bollingmo.

For me there is too much fast cutting and too little focus on the quotidian for Mark Schilling's use of the term "slow cinema" to fit (my standard is Tsai Ming-liang's Days), but his strongest case is that it lacks a score. A distinctive but restrained use of background sound is a main way Ito creates the mood. (It becomes unsubtle only once when one of the couple's more energetic moments of copulation is accompanied by the remote sound of a rock drill.) The vaguely menacing sound design makes you ready for anything. But this is a gentle film, due to its actors, despite off-the-wall moments and surprise jump cuts, and at one time when poor Susumu, just after he's got the normal use of his leg back, is pursued down down the street by a glowing phantom.

Things are never clearly going anywhere, but stuff happens. Susumu falls down on a street and a car runs over his leg and breaks it, putting him in a cast and on crutches for a while. Nonetheless he continues to visit Miyako and falls to the floor, cast and all, to attach a gift gold bracelet on her ankle. One can sympathize when after a visit to Miyako on crutches he says "stairs, stairs, stairs, stairs," a goodnatured complaint about the effort he's gone through to see her this time. Susumu is carving a lumpy round sculpture of Miyako's head out of wood with a small electric drill, not, one hopes, one filched from dental school. He takes lonely meals of fried liver at a cheap Chinese restaurant where he's waited on by a comically gruff waiter (Hirobumi Watanabe) who monologues for the benefit of the counter cook .Once Yoko turns up there, impatient with Susumu's lack of enthusiasm for this dump, and offering, almost threatening, to provide him with the secrets of Miyako's life, about which he knows nothing. He firmly refuses. We are far from the vibrant world of Wong Kar-wai, where the ramen shop of Chungking Express pulsates with pop tunes and expectations.

Calling this movie a "dreamscape," Schilling describes it as"by turns erotic, bizarre and unsettling." Yes, in a mild way. But it's also curiously soothing - because it moves so lethargically, and its settings are calm. This is a Tokyo with no crowds, no night time cityscapes, no neon, no subways. no buses. At the end, though, in a rare lunch at home with his mother and her female friend - an elaborate meal declared delicious but hardly consumed - Susumu declares that he has decided to move to Nagasaki, where he's never been, for a complete change, and taking nothing with him. Does she want anything? Yes, "any appliances that are newer," she says. .

Susumu is seen staring peacefully from the floor of his now totally empty apartment. Miyako, alone, is finally viewed entering her own still plant-filled one, picking up from its place on the cloth-draped floor what appears to be Susumu's carved wood head, but smoothed to a Brancusi-esque flatness, and holding it aloft.

Ito released another reportedly enigmatic film a mere month after In Her Room, this time with a rural setting and called Side by Side, featuring another young male protagonist, but now one endowed with extrasensory perception, or rather the ability to "sense the thoughts of other people." Japan Times'' other reviewer, James Hadfield, proclaims the second film "the more satisfying of the two." Okay, bring it on.

In Her Room ひとりぼっちじゃない ("You're Not Alone") , 135 mins., debuted at Tokyo Oct. 2022, showing also at Udine Apr. 2023. Screened for this review as part of the Jul.14-30 New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
July 28, 6:00 PM
Walter Reade Theater

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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