'They Say Nothing Stays the Same' ('Aru sendo no hanashi') | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Giornate degli Autori
An intriguing slow-burner.

The first feature directed by Japanese actor Joe Odagiri brings together a platinum cast and crew to recount a Zen-like tale.

Japanese actor and musician Joe Odagiri, known at home as a gothic rebel with a reliably huge female fan base, makes the leap to the other side of the camera in his mind-teasing feature film bow, They Say Nothing Stays the Same (Aru sendo no hanashi). It’s a dreamy, unexpectedly rigorous debut that starts frustratingly slowly but ends with an emotional bang, implying more festival appreciation after its premiere in Venice's Giornate degli Autori. Its path is lit by some dazzling modern credits from cult DP Christopher Doyle and Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan.

Odagiri came to Venice wearing two hats: as one of the leads in Lou Ye’s competition spy film Saturday Fiction, and as the director of this two-hour-plus meditation on an old man who ferries people across a pristine mountain river for a few coins. Having no other skills, the simple, humane boatman has spent his life on the river. Watching him shovel the water out of his flat-bottomed boat and navigate across a mighty river running through a heavenly mountain valley is like looking deep into a time-worn Japanese painting. The only human traces in this ancient landscape are the little boat, a wooden walkway down to the shore and the shack where he lives.

Though judging by the costumes, the action is set in the early 20th century, the mood of is quite timeless. The metaphysical space of Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring might be an inspiration (Odagiri starred in Kim’s 2008 Dream), though here the protag Toichi (Akira Emoto) is a very down-to-earth saint who spouts no Zen philosophy. The lengthy introduction, which slowly sets the stage, could profitably have been condensed, as it risks losing more impatient members of the audience. An illiterate man of few words, Toichi learns about the world as he ferries people across. Some are villagers he’s known for a lifetime (we never see the village); others are “city folk” like a chatty doctor (Isaao Hashizume). Crass workers who are building a bridge across the river around the bend mock and revile him for his age (“You stink like a corpse”). The bridge is mostly an offscreen menace known by the clanging of hammers and anvils as the construction goes forward, and it is going to put Toichi out of business.

His comical young pal Genzo (Nijiro Murakami), a local bumpkin, suggests they blow it up before the workmen can complete it, something that Toichi initially laughs off. But the idea haunts his dreams like a diabolical temptation. Once planted, the notion also haunts the viewer with a vision of how the story might end.

One day, Toichi’s boat hits something. He pulls a half-drowned girl out of the water with cuts and bruises all over her body. Genzo goes in search of herbs and Toichi treats her wounds, but they fear she’s hit her head. When she finally comes to, the girl (Ririka Kawashima) has no memory of who she is. She looks frightened and won’t speak until the old man’s kindness and delicate attentions reassure her she’s in a safe space. She starts living in the shack and helping with odds jobs.

There is a rumor going around that upstream, an entire family has been brutally murdered by a killer, who escaped with one of the children. Toichi says nothing but he suspects the nameless girl is the traumatized child. It makes no difference to him.

Gradually, the incidents come faster. In one of the most vividly beautiful scenes, Toichi’s distraught friend Nihei (played with sad dignity by Masatoshi Nagase of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train) appears on his doorstep late one night with the corpse of his father. The old man was a hunter who asked his son to leave his body exposed in the woods, to repay his debt to the wild animals he killed. Accompanied by Tigran Hamasyan’s softly thrilling humming and whistling score, the two men and the girl make their way deep into a misty, rain-drenched forest with reverence and awe. It’s a high point of the film and of Doyle’s cinematography, inspired by the ghostly otherworldliness of Japanese movies and art. He also makes meaningful use of the color red in the violence of the ending, where it reverberates viscerally.
 
Production company: Kinoshita Group
Cast: Akira Emoto, Ririka Kawashima, Nijiro Murakami, Masatoshi Nagase, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Tadanobu Asano, Yu Aoi, Haruomi Hosono, Isaao Hashizume

Director-screenwriter: Joe Odagiri
Producers: Shozo Ichiyama, Takuro Nagai, Yusaku Nakajima
Executive producer: Naoya Kinoshita
Director of photography: Christopher Doyle
Production designer: Takashi Sasaki
Costume designer: Emi Wada
Editors: Masaya Okazaki, Joe Odagiri
Music: Tigran Hamasyan
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Giornate degli Autori)
World sales: Kino International

137 minutes