Chronicle of My Mother: Busan Film Review

Suitably reverent family drama makes up in polish what it lacks in true intimacy

In this sentimental drama by Japanese director Harada Masato, a bitter author makes peace with his mother as her memories begin to fade.

The complex relationship between a mother and son anchors this sentimental drama by director Harada Masato (Inugami), in which a bitter author makes peace with his mother as her memories begin to fade. Based on the autobiographical novel by Inoue Yasushi, Chronicle of My Mother is a lush paean to unconditional maternal affection. Though tempted on a few occasions, it avoids slipping into syrupy territory largely on the back of engaging performances by Yakusho Koji andKirin Kiki in the lead roles.

In Asia, where responsibility for one’s parents is a facet of life, Chronicle could do strong box office in limited release. In foreign markets, creative distributors that found success with the tonally similar 2009 Oscar-winner Departures may want to take a look at this. 

Beginning in the late-1950s, Chronicle of My Mother follows a successful writer, Kosaku Igami (Yakusho, Shall We Dance), as he struggles to reconcile what is real and what he thinks is real about his relationship with his mother (Kirin, Izu, Ghost) in the last years of her life. The film begins with Kosaku and his sister Kuwako preparing to lay their dying father to rest.

She remains in the small town, but he returns to Tokyo, to his four daughters and devoted wife Mitsu. He rules the family with an iron fist, showing little respect for their quirks and ambitions if they don’t directly pertain to getting his novels printed and shipped.

Shortly after the death of his father, Kosaku’s mother is diagnosed with dementia, and he is saddled with her long-term care. But it is during her wanderings (both physical and imaginary) that their painful history is fully revealed. Using her abandonment of him as a boy following World War II to inform his life and art, Kosaku has made a living using his family, including his willful youngest daughter Kotoko (Miyazaki Aoi, Nana), as fodder.

It is Kotoko who suggests taking care of the aging, increasingly hard to handle woman. Kotoko, who also narrates the story, is the one that is curious about her father and grandmother’s odd relationship. In many ways, it is she that brings the two together again. With the old lady a constant presence, details of the mutually painful decision she made many years before come to light, forcing Kosaku to reevaluate his feelings.

Chronicleis shamelessly mushy and almost aggressively feminine, just in a low-key way. As his mother loses a grip on more and more of her memories, Kosaku becomes more accessible to his own family, bringing the clan closer together even as it begins to scatter — one daughter to Hawaii, one to the career track. There’s also a strong Ozu Yasujiro influence in evidence here, particularly in the lingering sense of hard-won peace that prevails in the second half.

For all the film’s muted emotionalism, Harada keeps the characters at a distance from the audience. Scenes that are meant to pack a wallop come and go with no earth-shattering impact. Deliberately paced (spanning 15 years) and beautifully photographed by Ashizawa Akiko, the film gets into a steady, quiet rhythm early and never diverges from it.

This is perhaps Harada’s most mainstream film but it’s rendered uneven by two points of view — Kosaku and Kotoko’s — that never get up a unified head of steam. Given the autobiographical source material, it’s oddly impersonal. It lacks the intimacy of a film like Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, something of a perfect counterpoint to Chronicle. Almodóvar kept the mother in his crosshairs the entire time, and the focus was never diluted. By the conclusion, we had a good idea of who she was.

Kosaku’s mother remains something of a cipher throughout. And though Kosaku and his girl army are initially irritated by the old woman’s antics and then eventually come to find amusement in the situation, the film is utterly devoid of levity in any respect.

Chronicle of My Motheris impeccably produced, and Yakusho and Kirin work wonders with the material they have. He is suitably stoic and wounded, keeping his emotions in check by channeling them into work and ordering his family around. Kirin manages to avoid the histrionics of disease and keeps mom sympathetic. When she drifts off into memory, it flows seamlessly from the moment before. But even with those star turns, the slow, meandering Chronicle is likely to put you to sleep before it makes you weep — mother or no mother.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, Closing Night Film

Production company: Chronicle of My Mother Film Partners

Cast: Yakusho Koji, Kiki Kirin, Miyazaki Aoi

Director/screenwriter: Harada Masato

Based on the novel by: Inoue Yasushi

Producer: Ishizuka Yoshitaka

Director of photography: Ashizawa Akiko

Production designer: Yamazaki Hidemitsu

Music: Fuki Harumi

Costume designer: Miyamoto Masae

Editor: Eugene Harada

Sales: Chronicle of Shochiku Co. Ltd.

No rating, 118 minutes