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In the aftermath of a fictional earthquake and nuclear meltdown, two Japanese families are uprooted from their homes and find their lives torn apart in The Land of Hope, a passionate, often touching, at times poetic drama of great psychological realism. Yet while the fictional stratagem allows writer-director Sion Sono the freedom to sidestep the need for political delicacy and capture the aftermath of the Fukushima tsunami/nuclear disaster in all its terror, it also robs the film of immediacy and undercuts its interest. It’s a little like watching an edge-of-seat dramatization of Hurricane Katrina set in a fictional Gulf Coast city — there’s something historical that feels left out.
Sion’s symbolic intent is clear, however, in setting the action in a small farming community in the invented Nagashima prefecture, an unmistakable combo of Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Fukushima. Coming on the heels of last year’s raw wail of pain Himizu, his daring and surprisingly successful attempt to relocate a teenage manga to disaster-struck northern Japan, this is perhaps the first feature to tackle 3/11 head-on. Using surprisingly straight-forward, emotional story-telling (though drawn out beyond the two-hour comfort zone), it should connect with audiences and persuade many of the need to rid the world of nuclear power plants. It has had an active fest life since its Toronto bow, with French release from Metropolitan Filmexport in the cards. Environmental groups should give it a careful look.
As in Himizu, Sion’s concern goes out most poignantly to future generations, represented here by the unborn child of a young couple exposed to radiation. Yet the central character, the one who has his eyes open the widest, is the elderly dairy farmer Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi) His tender doting on his doddering wife Chieko (Naoko Otani) recalls, in more ways than one, the selfless tenderness between Trintignant and Riva in Amour. When he first feels the earthquake, his thoughts fly to the nearby nuclear plant and whether it has been affected.
Of course it has, and as the government and local authorities incompetently, even ludicrously, stumble over evacuation and catastrophe measures, the farmers – perhaps all of Japan – slowly become aware that life will never be the same again.
While Yasuhiko opts to stay on the farm with his gentle, senile wife and a barn full of splendid looking cows whose milk is undrinkable, his gangly son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and young wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) make the heart-wrenching decision to evacuate. They eventually settle outside the official radiation area, but Izumi becomes obsessed with the health of the child she’s carrying and seals herself off from the world. Her paranoia collides with Yoichi’s denial of the contamination threat.
In an intercut story more in line with Sion’s teenage rebel stories, Yoichi’s biker friend (Yutaka Shimizu) shows exceptional courage and loyalty to his girlfriend (Hikari Kajiwara), running roadblocks to take her back to the town where she was born and where her parents were living when the earthquake struck. It has been reduced to rubble, without human presence, only two ghostly children who tell the shocked young couple they must go forward “one step at a time” before they vanish.
Sion’s sensitive treatment of the subject is respectful and pain-wracked, never exploitative, but it’s a long, draining journey for everyone, audience included. As the stories wrap up in the final scenes, the lensing reaches poetic peaks and the humming, rumbling soundtrack heard ominously throughout the film is overlaid with Mahler. The moving final scenes (some set in Fukushima, now an eerie white desert) burn away memories along with nature itself.
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Muhr AsiaAfrica competition), Dec. 15, 2012
Production companies: Dongyu Club, Bitters End, Pictures Dept.
Cast: Isao Natsuyagi, Naoko Otani, Jun Murakami, Megumi Kagurazaka, Yutaka Shimizu, Hikari Kajiwara, Mariko Tsutsui, Denden
Director: Sion Sono
Screenwriter: Sion Sono
Producers: Mizue Kunizane, Yuji Sadai, Yuko Shiomaki
Co-producers: Adam Torel, James Liu
Director of photography: Shigenori Miki
Production designer: Shinichi Matsuzuka
Music: Sion Sono
Costume designers: Kenji Kawazaki, Masato Arai
Editor: Junichi Ito
Sales: Dongyu Club, Pictures Dept.
No rating, 134 minutes.
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