The Japanese Film Festival now embarks on a turning point where the films of featured directors in attendance will be screened. As introduced by festival programmer Leong Chung Meng, the movie today was made by Naomi Kawase back in 2002, and this is the first screening of her third feature film here in Singapore, one in which she also stars in as well. Also, there was a documentary that was made in parallel about the movie at the time of production, and for those who want to know more about Shara, you would want to join in the screening on this coming Sunday morning at the National Museum Gallery Theatre, where director Tetsuaki Matsue (of the documentary Summer Vacation with Naomi Kawase) will be in attendance as well.
First and foremost, I thought the camera took on a life of its own, and drew a lot of attention to itself. It's free-wheeling, panning, tracking and zooming into noises that call out for notice. In some sense, it took on voyeuristic elements as it seemed we're right there with the characters and witnessing incidents as they unfold in the movie at first person's perspective. Not only that, Kawase has a penchant of incredibly long takes, not slow moving all the time though, but having scenes reveal themselves in one continuous shot. I would've imagined the nightmare during production should someone mess up, and the need to start over. Shots following characters also seem to be favourites, where it felt like we had to perpetually chase after the characters to follow on every plot development.
The story's nothing to shout about, as it looks at the lives of a household in Nara, Japan, after a member of the family mysteriously disappears, leaving behind mom Reiko (Naomi Kawase), dad Taku (Katsuhisa Namase) and their son Shun (Kohei Fukungaga). The opening shot's quite peculiar as well, as a slow moving camera rotates about in a room, as we hear continuous background chimes from the neighbourhood temple, with the voices of Shun and brother Kei conversing, and finally seeing them through window reflections, before a game of "follow me" turns into mystery, one which never gets resolved conclusively in the movie, unless you deem that the eyes from which we watch the movie, is from the eyes and perspective of Kei's.
Kei's disappearance is classic X-Files, just as how Fox Mulder had to deal with Samantha's own, and here we follow the family and how they each dealt with this - as one of the unseen characters puts it - case of "spirited away". Taku immerses himself in organizing the annual Basara street festival as its chairperson, while mom Reiko cultivates green fingers. Shun, blaming himself for losing sight of his brother, exorcises his demons through painting, and from the care given by girlfriend and neighbour Yu (Yuka Hyyoudo), who turns out to be living with her aunt. Even then, the theme of loss doesn't get forgotten, in another long talkie scene where Yu learns of how she came to live in a foster home under the guardianship of her aunt, in a rather incestuous tale that sounded a wee bit incredible, though surprisingly moving.
All's not doom and gloom though in Shara, in case you're wondering if this movie's slow pace would be your cup of tea, or whether you'll feel down after watching a sad movie. The movie ends off with a rather uplifting note of hope, where the anticipated birth of a child with a fine penis (yes, it was from the movie, ok?) lies in stark contrast with the mysterious loss of one in the beginning. In fact, things start to pick up (in pace even) after the Basara street festival scene, where before the narrative dealt with the mulling over Kei, and had generous allowance to set up all the principal characters.
And what a spectacle the Basara street performance was! Though it was highly repetitive, you can't deny the exuberant energy that the camera captured from the performers, entertaining all in a mesmerizing dance on the streets, which turned into a wet rain dance sequence under heavy downpour. If any scene would've stuck in your mind after you leave the theatre, this would be it, with a little wry scene where Shun had in his crowd control duties, inadvertently blocked the view of a cute knee-high tall child with his palm.
Shara turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable, and I now look forward to the documentary by Tetsuaki Matsue titled Summer Vacation with Naomi Kawase, where the focus is on "the emotional journey of the 2 lead actors - both amateurs - through the tight 2-week long shoot as they grapple with their roles, the tense atmosphere of the film, and Kawase's unique directorial style". I'm sold already!