Saturday, September 22, 2007

[Japanese Film Festival] Appassionata (序の舞 / Jo No Mai)

Sleeping to the Top

The Japanese Film Festival this year had a number of biographies in its lineup because of its theme, and it's no surprise that Appassionata falls into this category, telling a summarized life story of Japan's female painter Uemura Shoen, who was the first woman to have earned the Order of Culture, Japan's highest award for cultural achievement. Most of the narrative had focused on her humble beginnings, and it went as far back as tracing her mother's roots, as it is this relationship between mother and child that also took the spotlight.

Born Tsuya Shinamura (Yuko Natori), her talent for painting was discovered at a young age, and was brought under the tutelage of renowned artist Shokei Takagi (Kei Sato), who in a scene, was shown to be capable of painting 1000 drawings in a marathon session, using only black ink and a thick brush. And while Tsuya herself begin to win awards for her works, tongues get wagging that she's sleeping her way to the top of her game.

Now this is something that did seem a little strange and I felt was left ambiguous at best, because a most it's only an allegation, which the story and the film took and ran with it. On one hand it showed that Tsuya had every opportunity to escape the indecent proposal, but she didn't, and in the ensuing "rape" scene, might seem to have enjoyed(?!) it knowing very well what it can do for her career. But I would prefer to have looked at another angle, that she had no choice, given the circumstances of the society of the time, where women were characteristically submissive and have absolutely no say whatsoever in society, most of the time looked upon for sexual favours. She's stuck in a damn-if-you-do-or-don't situation, unfortunately.

And Shokei was a man you'd love to hate, right down to the core. Without a doubt the central "villain", here's a man who had abused his position, status and power, to satisfy his lust. A liar and a man of questionable honour, these are the kinds of folks that any society just can't seem to get rid of. Each time Kei Sato appeared on screen, trust me, I swore and cursed at his character.

But it's not just about these sexual dalliances. What was more powerful here were the themes of family, love and forgiveness. Society at the time dictates that family is of utmost importance, and chastity is held in high regard. Illegitimate children born out of wedlock is perhaps one of the greatest sins that a woman can commit, and here, the emotional tussle between Tsuya and her mother Sei (Mariko Okada) was the best amongst all the scenes in the movie. It's never easy for a single parent (already a handicap in Japanese society, without a man as the head of the household) to raise children on her own, and what more when additional, unnecessary challenges present themselves, one which bring shame to family and ancestors? The themes of love, and forgiveness, especially in the finale, will probably move you, after all, blood is thicker than water.

Jo No Mai refers to the dance of a young geisha, one of the more prominent works of Uemura Shoen, and in this movie, most of the award winning paintings were up on display for the audience to gain a slight introduction to her collection of paintings. What I thought was quite sad was that in order to earn a living and make money when turned away by most people, she had to resort to compromising her philosophy for the art by degrading her works into erotic pornography in order to make a quick buck. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but still, it's quite sorrowful.

Appasionata is a rather straightforward movie based on a biography, and if you're interested, you can read more about Uemura Shoen here.

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