Sketches of Kaitan City: Film Review

A melancholy mosaic of ordinary people dragged down by an environment of slow decline.

Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s film peruses the downhill slide of ordinary lives in a northern industrial town in recession.

TOKYO -- Concealing its heavy-heart with the lightness of a sigh, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City peruses the downhill slide of ordinary lives in a northern industrial town in recession.

Despite being an adaptation of an anthology of short stories by the late Yasushi Sato (a contemporary of Haruki Murakami), Sketches relies less on words and a literary structure than a large mosaic of dramatically-subdued, but richly textured images. Festivals should buy Kumakiri’s low key but tender depictions of working class people and subtle assimilation of socio-economical realities, redolent of the works of Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks. However, even art house distributors may have reservations about a film that trails on for 152 minutes. Ultimately, the beautiful parts don’t tally into a coherent sum that a masterpiece requires, and after the fourth story, the momentum dims out like a fire that has been burning for too long.

Kumakiri evokes a panoramic sense of time and place from his native Hokkaido through steady, austere frames. He maintains a contemplative distance with medium shots (often of people’s backs) and barely perceptible slow pans that echoes the wintry quietude and the repressed sorrow or anger of his subjects.

Kumakiri has chosen five out of 18 short stories in Sato’s work, and sets them around the time of New Year in the fictional Kaitan city, whose life-support is the declining ship-building industry. He moves from one set of characters to the next without forcing any thematic or structural connections, giving equal depth to significant and inconsequential moments alike.

Transitions between the first three stories are more seamless. They culminate in two siblings gazing at the sunrise after they got laid-off, an old woman facing eviction looking for her cat in the sunset and a planetarium worker yearning to see the constellation with his estranged family. The act of gazing into sun and stars reinforces nature’s indifference to mortal suffering and the fact that life goes on. While the half exudes a doleful and hushed mood, the second half acquires a harder edge as the characters simmer with imploded fury, such as the man who, after being stuck in the dark planetarium by day and his hostile home at night backs up his car against two piles of snow and cannot to drive after his wife. The shocking cycle of violence and psychological abuse in a family are matched by harsh, wounding words that over-the-hill hostesses and miserable patrons hurl at each other in the most matter-of-fact way.

Tokyo International Film Festival, Competition
Sales: Open Sesame Co.
Production: Iris Inc.
Cast: Mitsuki Tanimura, Ryo Kase, Kaoru Kobayashi, Kaho Minami, Pistol Takehara, Masaki Miura, Takashi Yamanaka.
Director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Screenwriter: Takashi Ujita.Producers: Kazuhiro Sugawara, Hirotaka Maeda, Hajime Harie, Michio Koshikawa
Planning producer: Kazuhiro Sugawara
Director of photography: Ryuto Kondo
Art Director: Naoteru Yamamoto
Costume designer: Yukiko Kosato
Music: Jim O'Rourke
No rating, 152 minutes.

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