Hanezu: Cannes 2011 Review

Cannes Film Festival
Ravishingly shot pastoral of country life that strains too hard to be mythical.

Cannes regular Naomi Kawase misses the mark with her visually rhapsodic but overbearingly metaphorical film about a threesome in rural Japan.

CANNES -- The magnificent and dramatic presence of Nature dwarfs human protagonists wallowing in a banal ménage a trois in Naomi Kawase’s visually rhapsodic but overbearingly metaphorical and emotionally wan Hanezu. Again evoking her favorite motifs of pregnancy, death, and heartbreak within the rural environs of Nara (Kawase’s hometown and location for all her works), the Japanese director sees no need in varying or transcending her personal blend of documentary and poetic-animist style.

Kawase’s pedigree background as a two-time Cannes award winner (Camera D’or and Grand Prix) plus Cannes Competition status this time round will give her a carte blanche to festivals, but commercially, the film won’t persuade many new converts to join its tight, Eurocentric arthouse clan of supporters.

Kawase initiates one into the idyllic, rustic existence of her three central figures in her characteristic style, which is like writing a diary filled with routines and trivia. Kayo (Hako Oshima), a dye-maker co-habitates with Tetsuo (Tetsuya Akikawa), an editor and enthusiastic horticulturist while having an affair with Takumi (Tohta Komizu), a wood carver. One afternoon, Kayo tells him she is pregnant. He shows no reaction. When Tetsuya is away on business, the other two visit their respective parents. When they return, Kayo breaks different news to her two lovers, provoking almost equally devastating reactions.

Like all of Kawase’s fiction films, Hanezu prostrates itself reverently before the majesty of Nature, emphasizing how humans are inseparable from their habitat. Her visuals are as pure and clear as spring water and more awe-inspiring than ever. Sounds of animals and changing weather form a haunting, other-worldly chorus.

In that sense, Hanezu can serve as a celluloid equivalent of yuppie eco-tourism and promotion reel for Nara’s local handicrafts and produce as we feast our eyes on characters cooking delicious organic meals, shopping at farmers’ markets, carving art from rare cedar, trysting on a hilltop shrine or cycling around glistening paddy fields.

The problem is when Kawase tries to elevate the threesome’s tragedy into something primeval and archetypal. She punctuates their goings-on with incantations of ancient verses and frabjous images of Nature accompanied by narrators intoning myths of mountains acting like alpha males. The abrupt outcome at the end is part of a red color scheme betokening the vibrancy and fragility of life, encapsulated by the Japanese title which means “moon in red,” “hanezu” being an antiquated word derived from Manyoshu, an 8th century poetry collection.

However, the relationship is so prosaic, the characters’ inner thoughts so submerged and their reactions (especially Tetsuo’s) so illogical that the story never rises to that level of grandeur Kawase desires. The aforesaid abrupt scene is unsubtle and borders on schlocky.

There’s an attempt to establish a sense of continuity in family (and by extension human) history by referring to experiences of unfulfilled love endured by the protagonists’ grandparents. But it’s clumsily obvious yet incidental like an after-thought. The narrative drifts further into shaky spiritual metaphor with unexplained apparitions of a World War II soldier wandering forlornly, complaining to his love about “waiting” — another theme implied, but left dangling.

In fact, the more Kawase strives for oriental mysticism, the more everything strains under the weight of having to symbolize something. Nowhere is this more so than random scenes of excavations, which the epilogue suggests has something to do with the film’s location being the cradle of the Japanese race — a pompous yet tenuous way of forcing her small human drama into a context so epic as the birth of the nation.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Sales: Memento Films
Production companies: Kumie, Inc.
Cast: Hako Oshima, Tohta Komizu, Tetsuya Akikawa, Akaji Maro
Director-screenwriter-director of photography-editor: Naomi Kawase
Based on a story by Masako Bando
Production designer: Kenji Inoue
Music: Hasiken
Editors: Yusuke Kaneko, Tina Baz
No rating, 90 minutes

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