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Writer-director Naomi Kawase’s latest feature, Vision, sees her reteamed with major talent Masatoshi Nagase, from Kawase’s An and Radiance, for a silly but picturesque story set in an ancient Japanese forest and sprinkled with supernatural elements. Joining the party this time around is the always interesting Juliette Binoche, an actor who clearly relishes chances to work with adventurous auteurs in far-flung places (see also her collaborations with Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis and David Cronenberg).
Binoche and Nagase play a forest ranger and a journalist, respectively, who become romantically entangled when the former’s character shows up looking for a plant or fungus called “vision” that releases spores only every 997 years and can cure pain. Although the French star won’t necessarily guarantee massive ticket sales, her presence should make this effort considerably more marketable than the average Kawase movie, especially since so many of the director’s films seem to play festivals like Cannes or Toronto (this one premiered at the latter), screen domestically and in a few cine-curious territories like France, and then effectively disappear.
Strong silent type Tomo (Nagase) has been tending to the trees and living in the forest of Yoshino for some time, often popping in for tea and sympathy at the hut of older, blind forest denizen Aki (Mari Natsuki). This resourceful crone can take care of herself while living alone, tell the future and looks chic in a stylish hermit way with a close cropped hairdo.
Accompanied by translator Hana (Minami), Jeanne (Binoche) shows up to look for vision, the plant-or-fungus MacGuffin she heard legends about many years ago. Encountering Tomo at work, Jeanne and Hana explain to the skeptical mountain man why they’ve come and ask if he knows about vision. He doesn’t, but he kindly lets the women stay in his attic for an indefinite period of time. After Hana waves a cheery goodbye and leaves the forest — why exactly is never explained — Tomo and Jeanne become lovers, consummating their attraction with some R-rated sex scenes.
Aki’s reaction to the Frenchwoman in town is more peculiar, prompting cryptic mutterings such as, “So it was you!” Indeed, enigmatic proclamations are very much the order of the day for Vision, with Jeanne wondering if they are all “really in the present” and Aki announcing, with an entirely straight face, that she has “eyes in [her] heart.” Vision, you see, is not just about looking.
As the film wears on, the pace barely ever changing as scenes lap against the screen, the past and the present, and, what the hell, maybe the future, too, co-mingle and overlap, so it becomes impossible to know when anything is going on, although at some points Binoche’s hairstyle has bangs, perhaps to signify youth. Once upon a time there was another handsome Japanese man (Takanori Iwata) whom she met and fell in love with in this very same forest. Aki goes missing but is seen later dancing gracefully near a tree. The wind rustles the tree branches. Who knows what’s the meaning of life.
Although Binoche and Nagase are compelling and skilled enough performers to command attention, and the bucolic setting is soothing to observe, the soporific pace and twee quasi-environmentalist, semi-mystical guff about life cycles and dreams foretold will annoy some viewers.
Production companies: LDH Japan, Slot Machine, Kumie
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Masatoshi Nagase, Takanori Iwata, Minami, Mirai Moriyama, Koh, Kazuko Shirakawa, Jiji Boo, Min Tanaka, Mari Natsuki
Director-screenwriter: Naomi Kawase
Producers: Satoshi Miyazaki, Marianne Slot, Naomi Kawase
Executive producer: Exile Hiro
Director of photography: Arata Dodo
Production designer: Setsuko Shiokawa
Costume designer: Meg Mochiduki
Editors: Francois Gedigier, Yoichi Shibuya
Music: Makoto Ozone
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Elle Driver
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