Cutie and the Boxer: Sundance Review

A finely textured and beautifully told story of two Japanese artists in New York and their challenging 40-year marriage.

Director Zachary Heinzerling's documentary follows the complicated 40-year marriage of New York-based Japanese artists Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko.

PARK CITY —- A good example of the maxim that opposites attract, Zachary Heinzerling’s accomplished and entertaining documentary, Cutie and the Boxer, presents the complicated 40-year marriage of New York-based Japanese artists Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko. With the timing of a comedy duo exchanging barbs, the macho, self-absorbed Ushio and the elegant, independent-minded Noriko are delightful company in this intimate exploration of life and art. The film could find a comfortable home at a sympathetic cabler.

Heinzerling picks up the story on Ushio’s 80th birthday and has lots of ground to cover. Fortunately, the couple shot a wealth of Super 8 footage over the years, which is skillfully integrated to present a full picture of their history together.

Ushio, best known for his Jackson Pollack-influenced boxing paintings, in which he literally slugs it out with a canvas, applying blotches of color with boxing gloves, was an enfant terrible in Japan before moving to New York in 1969 in search of international recognition that never quite materialized. Noriko was a 19-year-old art student when she fell in love with Ushio and abandoned her own work to become his assistant and caretaker. Until recently a consummate alcoholic, Ushio was a handful to manage. But Noriko is no pushover, and their sparring is entertaining and soulful. Usiho accuses her of never listening to him, and that’s not far from the truth. Behind Ushio’s bravado, one senses a great tenderness and affection for his wife.

What gives these lives form and content and makes them so interesting to watch is their dedication to their art and the creative process. Working out of cluttered neighboring studios in Brooklyn, Ushio freely admits that art is a demanding mistress, and Noriko compares their co-existence to two flowers trying to grow in the same pot; the result can be heaven or hell.

The film started out to be portrait of Usiho, but several years ago, drawing on her lifetime of frustration, Noriko finally found her voice in a series of humorous paintings accompanied by text explaining the trials of being married to an egotistical alcoholic. “Cutie and the Bullie,” as Noriko titled her work, resembles a large-scale graphic novel. By will of her personality and wit, to some extent, Noriko takes over the spotlight as the couple prepare for their first joint exhibition.

Appropriately, given the film’s colorful subject matter, Heinzerling visually captures the energy of these people and their art. Ushio’s transformation from a slight and mild-mannered figure to a ferocious shirtless wild man pummeling the canvas is eye popping. On the other hand, the grace of Noriko’s work is communicated with whimsical, black and white animation as her drawings come to life. And Yasuaki Shimizu’s Japanese-tinged, understated score beautifully accents the action. Because Cutie and Boxer resists easy sentimentality, its view of life and love is all the more powerful.

Production Companies: Ex Lion Tamer, a Cine Mosaic Production
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Producers: Zachary Heinzerling, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Patrick Burns, Sierra Pettengill
Executive producers: Kiki Miyake
Director of photography: Zachary Heinzerling
Music: Yasuaki Shimizu
Editor: David Teague
No rating, 82 minutes