Deep in the Valley -- Film Review

Bottom line: Intriguing hybrid of documentary and fiction celebrates a Tokyo community while probing the history and soul of Japan.

Berlin International Film Festival -- Forum
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BERLIN -- The whole proves greater than the sum of the parts in "Deep in the Valley," an ambitious, delicate delve into the geography, history, culture and soul of Japan that's almost as intricately constructed, with nearly as many layers, as the five-story pagoda that is central to its interlocking narratives. Gently paced at just over two hours on monochrome DV -- with color interludes -- it's a tough sell commercially, but likely warm critical reception will greet what is probably going to be a lengthy tour of film festivals.

Indeed, this is just the kind of project that runs the risk of being unhelpfully overpraised in certain quarters: serious in intent and unusual in form, it has the outward appearance of a minor masterpiece, though on closer inspection some of its constituent parts are a more than a little wobbly. Blending fictional and documentary elements, plus dramatized extracts from a classic novel from the 19th century, writer-director Funahashi Atsushi (2005's "Big River") compiles a sensitive, informative and atmospheric portrait of the Yanaka neighborhood. It's an area of Tokyo that has, due to its slight geographical isolation, largely escaped the ravages of technological progress and concrete-jungle excess. With a high number of old people living in their own homes, it's a quiet and leafy spot whose sedate pace the film mirrors from the first, reflective montage of folk going about their business among gravestones and temples.

We then meet a group of young people in the Yanaka Film Assn., who are tracking down dusty 8mm films kept in local closets, restoring them and screening them for the benefit of the community. Their holy grail is to discover footage of the destruction of the area's most famous landmark, the Five-Story Pagoda, which burned down in 1957 and was immortalized in Rohan Koda's classic book of the same title. Among those in search of these rumored reels is Kaori (Sato Mayu), who receives crucial help from Hisaki (Nomura Yuki), a youthful con man and potential Yakuza who finds himself veering away from his criminal exploits.

The budding romance between Kaori and Hisaki isn't without its corny touches and, likewise, Funahashi doesn't show much flair with the sections set during the construction of the pagoda in the 18th century -- featuring the same actors as the present-day sequences. The final reel, meanwhile, sees a slightly clumsy stab at magical realism, plus a melodramatic conclusion to the romantic subplot.

Essentially a plea for younger people to respect and engage with their elders, the film is most successful in its straight documentary sequences, combining landscape rumination with lively testimony from real Yanaka citizens. The cumulative results are persuasive, thought-provoking and occasionally touching: a kind of "8mm Paradiso," Japanese-style.

Production: Enbu Seminar & Digital Hollywood; Big River Films (Tokyo)

Cast: Nomura Yuki, Sato Mayu, Kato Katsuhiro, Ogawa Miyoko
Director: Funahashi Atsushi
Screenwriters: Funahashi Atsushi, Negishi Ayako, partly based on a novel by Koda Rohan
Producers: Koji Ichihashi, Funahashi Atsushi
Director of photography: Mizuguchi Noriyuki
Production designer: Takako Hirayama
Music: Janusz Duszynski
Editor: Funahashi Atsushu
Sales: Big River Films, Tokyo

No rating, 125 minutes