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At the center of Radiance is Misako (Ayame Misaki), a writer struggling to perfect the art of penning audio descriptions for the visually impaired. Test audiences describe her first effort as too verbose, and her second attempt as too pared down. The film’s director, Naomi Kawase, has been trapped in a similar conundrum in recent years, alternating between movies characterized by empty enigmas (Still the Water) and contrived melodrama (An).
Kawase’s latest is certainly an improvement on both — if only slightly. While letting go of the exotic mysticism of Still the Water (or 2011’s Hanezu, for that matter) and An’s easy sentimentalism, Radiance remains mired in underwritten relationships that end up less emotionally engaging than they appear, as well as pompous lines much less meaningful than they sound. (Samples: “A photographer is a hunter whose prey is time”; “I want cinema to convey a tangible sense of hope.”)
Making her fifth appearance in competition (and seventh overall) at Cannes, Kawase shows she’s sadly still nowhere near recovering that stylistic balance that propelled her to greatness in the first decade of her career: Suzaku (1997) and The Mourning Forest (2007), both prize-winners on the Croisette, remain two of the most artistically audacious and emotionally engaging films to have emerged out of contemporary Japanese cinema.
Radiance is as luminous a piece of filmmaking as Kawase’s previous work, but it also contains much less substance than its gleaming sheen suggests. Riding on the mainstream breakthrough success of An, the film is counting on the presence of Paterson‘s Masatoshi Nagase and the story’s unfettered celebration of cinema as both art and salvation to garner prominent exposure on the festival circuit and, perhaps, niche releases in Asian and European markets. (Except in France, of course: Kawase is an art house icon backed by MK2, who are repping the film at Cannes.)
While Radiance’s lead character is Misako, the film doesn’t begin with her. Instead, the first sequence features a middle-aged man slowly shuffling into his seat at a movie theater, settling down and then putting a small headset to his ear. Nakamori (Nagase, who is also in An) is a gruff photographer who is slowly losing his sight, and his first encounter with Misako takes the shape of a verbal sparring match in a focus group screening; he admonishes her work as being “subjective,” while she questions him for his bluntness.
No prize for guessing that the pair will soon reconcile and grow closer. Not that their thinly sketched personalities could explain convincingly why those affections will bloom. Their red-herring backstories — she misses her deceased father and her dementia-stricken mother; he bristles at the thought of his soon-to-be-remarried ex-wife — are soppy cliches and add hardly anything to the viewer’s understanding of their motivations.
Misako seems reluctant or simply unable to understand the spirit of cinema, as she questions a veteran actor-filmmaker (Tatsuya Fuji of In the Realm of the Senses) for making “abstract” statements about art and mortality. Nakamori, meanwhile, is (or was) part of a coterie of photographers who boast of having worked on fashion magazine covers, and offers a grandiose view of photography that would probably make Henri Cartier-Bresson turn in his grave.
Just like in Kawase’s previous outings, Radiance offers an entrancing mix of lushly filmed lights and sensitively sculpted sounds. While certainly remarkable, these elements offer hardly anything new to the Japanese auteur’s palette. What she adds here are actually unnecessary visualizations of the pair’s inner struggles: the frequent close-ups of Misako’s eyes to illustrate her desire to see, for example, or Nakamori slipping over a pool of vomit and then having his camera stolen by someone he knows.
That Radiance takes to appropriating the best bits of her past work — specifically the reflections on mortality and rural-set finale from The Mourning Forest — perhaps speaks volumes about Kawase’s creative impasse. Perhaps Misako is Kawase’s younger onscreen proxy after all; when she talks about her impossible wish of running toward the sunset and capturing the light for keeps, perhaps she’s articulating the director’s own anguish at her inability to be at her best and most inspired.
Production companies: Kino Films, Comme des Cinémas
Director-screenwriter: Naomi Kawase
Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Ayame Misaki, Tatsuya Fuji
Producers: Naoya Kinoshita, Masa Sawada, Yumiko Takebe
Director of photography: Arata Dodo
Production designer: Setsuko Shirakawa
Music: Ibrahim Maalouf
Editor: Tina Baz
Sales: MK2 International Sales
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
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