Saturday, August 30, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] Broken Blossom / Pathos

The double bill feature documentaries by director Naomi Matsuoka this evening could be poster-child movies for our authorities here who are tasked to look at boosting fertility rates and addressing fertility / population issues. In some ways, they form a bookend, touching on extremely personal issues in the whole schema of things, from an individual viewpoint on stigmas, problems and challenges attached to wanting but losing a child, before almost waxing lyrical on the joys of being a parent.

In Broken Blossom, Naomi Matsuoka documents her unfortunate experience of suffering a miscarriage. And really, it was quite brave of her to have revisited this ordeal all over again while making the movie, and being very candid in the sharing of her views, and her suffering of losing her own flesh and blood. You can still feel her pain of loss, especially when she opens the documentary with a tinge of regret of not being able to have captured precious moments back then because of the lack of a camera.

She spent significant time debating and probably berating those who chose to abort their child during pregnancy. For her, the miscarriage is unforeseen, and like almost all sufferers, had to go through tremendous emotional turmoil to deal with their loss, mostly stemming from guilt whether they had been directly responsible. It’s very different from a conscious decision made to abort a fetus, where she had observed some young girls doing so in such casual terms, she wonders whether they actually know the gravity of the situation of having to kill a life. I thought this segment will probably resonate amongst those who had undergone the medical procedure, whether Naomi Matsuoka’s chiding will get through to them, should they watch this documentary detailing her arguments against it, from a personal viewpoint.

Besides dealing with the issues of her miscarriage, Broken Blossom was also like a family portrait documentary, as she looks back on her own family, and her relationships with her brother and father, who wasn’t put in very good light, but managed to appear on camera anyway, despite objections. There’s a tragic sense of death and despair permeating throughout the documentary, as she self narrates her thoughts and feelings about death and loneliness at an old age, besides also documenting the passing away of her mother-in-law, and the observation on burial rituals on Cheju Island in Korea.

I wondered how she felt watching Naomi Kawase’s Birth / Mother earlier before the screening of this movie, thinking that it might have been a bit painful to observe the bundle of joy that is Kawase’s, but Pathos puts aside this unease, especially when in itself was a celebration of being a mother to two children.

In this International Premiere (we being the first outside of Japan to have watched this documentary), it opens with the Happy Birthday song, which almost continues from where Broken Blossom left off. Pathos plays out like a home video, where proud parents eagerly capture various candid shots of their child in their discovery of a whole new world, and without a doubt, Naomi Matsuoka’s cute daughter Sakuya inadvertently steals the entire movie. For would-be parents, or parent wannabes, I think Sakuya’s innocence and wide-eyed inquisitiveness will charm you, in encouraging you to buy into the idea of parenthood that the local authorities are trying their darnest best to promote, and you’re likely to hope that your own kid would be as easy to handle, manage, nurture and teach.

But it’s not just all saccharine sweet focus on the child, as the director does focus on other pertinent issues like the complexities of the modern women role, of juggling everything in her stride to achieve some semblance of work-life harmony, of being the role of a mother and a wife. And she wears her heart on her sleeve too, in her reminiscence of her miscarried child, who is not at all forgotten.

Naomi Matsuoka’s experience of child birth at a midwife’s clinic was also captured in the last act of the movie heralding the arrival of her newborn Ruka, with recording the moment, and of Sakuya’s reaction to witnessing the birth, that was nothing short of amazing and an eye opener too. During the panel discussion she mentioned that some Japanese ladies, and I’m pretty sure that might be some in the audience, who would have marveled at the alternative available in child birth besides the usual hospital venue. Similarly like Birth / Mother, the camera doesn’t flinch away from being an observer in the process.

Personally, I thought that these two documentaries by Naomi Matsuoka were unselfishly personal in her daring to bare her soul for the audience, in issues that are very close to the heart. In essence, I felt that they both worked in providing a pro-family voice and triumphs over many of the other attempts seen here locally which throws economic and monetary benefits to those who are married and require that extra push to start a family. Maybe these films seen together would be a great motivational factor to provide some positive encouragement to those couples.

LtoR: Interpreter, Naomi Matsuoka and Dr Ann Tan

Director Naomi Matsuoka was in attendance today to share more about her films in a discussion panel. Joining her was Dr Ann Tan from the Singapore Council of Women. Here's an excerpt of the Q&A.

Q: Could you share with us the audience reaction and response to your movies?
Naomi Matsuoka (NM): Both movies (Naomi Kawase’s and mine) had our special perceptions and are personal. For most Japanese, most are used to giving birth at the hospitals. For us, we chose to give birth at the midwife clinic and thought that it’s the best way for us. According to my understanding only 1% to 3% uses the technique the way we did, with the midwife rather than the doctor. Most of the reactions from Japanese audiences was that it was a new discovery for them. Things have been changing in our society. I know of some friends who are afraid of giving birth and having children. Pathos was screened for 2 weeks in Osaka recently, and some female audience members told me that if they could give birth like that (through a midwife), they would like to as well.

Q: How were you able to cope with aftercare?
NM: I gave birth to my first child in the hospital, which meant that I was in good care of the medical staff, but when we were discharged, we were on our own and I felt a little bit distressed because after all, it was my first time. In the midwife clinic (the birth of my second child), we can go back to them with questions, and thus longer term care was provided. In Osaka, given the low birth rates, there’s a system of having the elderly to assist and getting themselves involved in child rearing.

Q: Could you elaborate about Atsuki the soft toy?
NM: (laughs) Usually I would like to keep it a secret, but since you’re my first international audience, I will share it with you. I first received Atsuki when I had the miscarriage, and I received it from a girl who had miscarried twice before. Atsuki is hand made. Suzuki-san (sp?) was helping Naomi Kawase as well, and that’s how I got to know her. She used to live in Tokyo, but after her ordeal she had chosen to live in a rural part of Nara. For women who had to go through the misfortune of a miscarriage, sometimes you do get envious when you see the children of other women. Some deal with this by keeping pets, or making toys. She made Atsuki, and when she gave it to me during my miscarriage, she told me “This is like my child, please take care of it”. Before Sakuya was born, Atsuki has always been there. Now Atsuki Is Sakuya’s favourite toy and she even sleeps with it. Suzuki-san now has 2 children.

Q: Are there any plans to continue your director career, balancing it with your responsibility of motherhood?
NM: Frankly I would like to live a life without making movies! After Broken Blossom, I thought I had already done it, and need not make any more films. But when it was screened in Japan, a lot of women came up to me, some were crying and when they saw Sakuya – whom I had brought along to the screenings – some became genuinely happy, so I thought about another movie and that became Pathos. As for my next movie, it really depends on the interactions with people, and the inspiration I get. It’s difficult to maintain a balance. I participated in the editing process for Pathos. The first stage, I had a professional editor work on it, while I did the later stage at night while my children were asleep.

In life, each of us here has a role to play, and there’s a need to find some balance. I always say this to the audience at the screenings – I am not special, and being a director doesn’t mean I’m more special than any one of you. Each of us has a role to play, and were made for that role. It’s a matter of finding it, and playing it. A lot of us struggle through life as we try to find that role. Once found, the sense of unease disappears. Happiness has different definitions in our hearts. Even if the role you find is not important to other people, what matters is so long as it’s important to you.

I struggle a lot in life, and I know of others who are struggling too, and we can do something to make a difference in their lives, why not? You’ll not only make others happy, but yourself too.

Q: Is there any coaching involved for your daughter in Pathos?
NM: It was all natural, and no coaching at all. Adults cannot coach children, and you’ll be amazed that more often it’s the other way round.

Q: Was there any emotional struggle in bringing your documentaries to the big screen, especially since you mentioned that you do the editing yourself?
NM: You may think that I’m naïve but I believe one person’s thoughts and ideals could change the world. So that’s why I put my thoughts into the making of the films and it really helped that people felt that the movies touched them, and their responses have been encouraging for me.

Q: Some of your shots were really dark or really bright. Are there any reasons for it?
NM: When I was filming, I used both film and digital cameras, and when taking the shots I relied on my instincts to decide which camera to use. So sometimes you will see differences in colour, lighting etc and to me, it was the capturing of the moment which is more important to me. So maybe my work can be described as just is. If I feel a cut is necessary, I would use it, even though technically it’s not superb.

Q: How did you convince your family to work in your personal films?
NM: My husband does make films, so he understands. What worried me was my dad who dislikes being in it. I think if it’s capturing the truth of the moment, there might be criticisms, but it conveys something to people. So long as you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to share them with me.

Q: Your husband played a big part in your films. Was he involved in any part of the creative process?
NM: In the scene in the delivery ward and the focus on my daughter, I wasn’t giving any directions, just telling him to take Sakuya and deciding for himself what to do. His response to the film is usually “Ok” or “Good”, and that’s his usual reaction. In Japan, hospitals only allow the husband to enter the delivery suite. Only 1% of women opting for the midwife clinic is having their first child. These midwife clinics definitely are connected to hospitals in case of crises or emergencies. I was quite tickled when audiences here laughed at the scene where Sakuya cried. In Japan, audiences reactions were divided into being relieved at the birth, or being sympathetic toward Sakuya. In fact after the scene at home, Sakuya started to put Atsuki into a box and place the box at her stomach, playing make pretend of delivering a baby and asking me to hold her hand!

Q: What was the significance of the scene with the windows, carrot, 2 pandas and pug?
NM: There’s no deep meaning. Initially I didn’t want to get married because I thought being alone I could enjoy life. What I wanted to convey was that even when married, I can still have fun by myself. The carrot was just left too long in the fridge that it cannot be eaten.

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