The Japanese Dog (Cainele Japonez): San Sebastian Review

Japanese Dog Film Still - H 2013

Japanese Dog Film Still - H 2013

A satisfying, unexpectedly upbeat film, superbly played, in which hope is always just about visible through the tragedy.

An elderly man comes to terms with loss in Romanian Tudor Cristian Jurgiu’s feature debut.

Romanian cinema’s ability to explore big themes with minimal materials is reconfirmed in The Japanese Dog, a leisurely, lyric and clear-eyed study of the changes in the life of an elderly man following the 2010 floods that devastated the northeast of the country. Viewers anticipating the bleakness and grim humor that characterizes much of the Romanian New Wave will instead find here a gentle film which, while entirely unsentimental, is gently upbeat, and while slow-moving, carefully avoids indulgence. This strikingly confident first feature is deserving of further fest bookings.

Costache (veteran Victor Rebengiuc, who turned 80 earlier this year) has lost his wife, Maria, and indeed everything else, in the flooding. His purpose is now to rebuild his life, scavenging from abandoned houses to fill the house he has been given, working to have his electricity reconnected, and trying to negotiate a tricky land sale where there is every likelihood he’ll be ripped off.

Costache, a burly, powerful presence whom Jurgiu is content to observe as he unsmilingly goes about his daily business of survival, oozes stoicism, if losing it just occasionally. He is convinced that his son Ticu (Serban Pavlu), who he has not seen for 20 years, will not return for Maria’s funeral, but he does so -- accompanied by his Japanese wife, Hiroku (Kana Hashimoto), his young son, Paul Koji (Toma Hashimoto), and a talking Robodog, the like of which Costache has never seen before.

The rest of the films charts the slowly deepening relationship of father and son, neither of them naturally garrulous, as they slowly learn to look beyond the generational and physical distance that has separated them to know one another for the first time. Finally, Costache smiles.

Rebengiuc inhabits Costache's melancholy with a shambling, broken stoicism, his performance suggesting that despite the toll it takes on an old man, the moment you have lost everything may be the best moment to start over. He trembles between fear and hope at his son’s return.

The film wears its sense of place well, with Jurgiu taking pains to slowly reveal to the viewer not only Costache, but also the dynamics of the tiny rural village in which he has lived all his life. A couple of striking skyscapes apart, there is thankfully very little cinematic tourism on display. That said, DP Andrei Butica composes some wonderful, haunting moments: one shows Costache sitting meditatively at night by Maria's grave, illuminated only by candles, and another is of her funeral, a static scene which demands our patient attention until a horse and carriage has crossed the scene on a distant hillside. Only occasionally do things descend into visual cliche, as when Ticu smokes a reflective cigarette in the darkness.

The mood is predominantly melancholic through the first half, lighter through the second. But there are quiet moments of humor throughout, often based on the cultural differences between Costache and his Japanese grandson. Using long shots, ellipsis and little explanation -- the first fifteen minutes are indeed a little tricky to navigate -- the story builds up via small, incremental details rather than by clear narrative steps. But given the longueurs which dictate the film’s rhythm, the final twist comes slightly too abruptly and feels a little tricksy, a little dramatically shorthand.

Production: Libra Film Production
Cast: Victor Rebengiuc, Serban Pavlu, Laurentiu Lazar, Kana Hashimoto, Toma Hashimoto.
Director: Tudor Christian Jurgiu
Screenwriters: Iona Antoci, Gabriel Gheorghe, Jurgiu
Producer: Tudor Jurgiu
Executive producer: Bogdan Craciun
Director of photography: Andrei Butica
Production designer: Cezara Armasu
Editor: Dragos Apetri
Sound: Vlad Voinescu, Flip Muresan
Sales: M-Appeal
No rating, 85 minutes