Sunday, October 18, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] If Blessed (World Premiere)

Love Overcoming Boundaries

The decisions we make, either pre-meditated or in a flash, sometimes become life-altering for ourselves, and not to forget the impact it inevitably has on others as well. At times we see the result directly, but in others there's this reverberation that goes down the degrees of separation. We follow the protagonist Jun Nagino (Masashi Kubota) in one such moment in the opening, where we bear witness to a senseless double murder in a botched robbery attempt, and an additional violation revealed later in the movie that provides a pivotal point for judgement. If the movie intends to be screened in Singapore, this may raise the eyebrows of the classification board unfortunately, and probably tone down Jun's rotten desperation.

Sentenced to be on death row, director Kite Okachimachi redeems Jun with the character being haunted by his inexplicable act, and the resignation to his punishment by not appealing the sentence, not that he's not fearful for the premature termination of his life. Without friends and family, his priest and lawyer both want him to meet up with a female volunteer who would be able to assist him up until his last day with his needs. Enter Kaoru Kawahara (Machiko Ono), an attractive young lady who is recently married, and actually has a lot more connection with Jun than originally assumed, with her own hidden agenda as to why she wanted to enter into this arrangement.

There were many things going on for this compact 90 minute film. One of which is the theme of covert communication. Given the removal of privileges, conversations amongst inmates and visitors are listened in by the prison wardens, and gifts all checked thoroughly for any items that can be used by inmates to hurt themselves, not so much as to assist in their escape from their cell. Amongst inmates, there's this system of whispers, grilled windows and even water pipes that can be used for limited chats, utilizing every available nook and cranny within their cells to touch base with another human being besides their wardens. While some may deem it sacrilegious for defacing the Bible, I thought it demonstrated the extent of desperation in wanting to reveal private feelings to another person, but not within earshot of an external party being privy to the contents.

The Bible becomes a conduit for messages, and you can probably go to the extent of a conversation with God as a witness as both Jun and Kaoru inevitably draw closer toward each other with constant communication and the bridging of feelings, in stark contrast to the loveless, emotionless marriage that Kaoru has trapped herself in, no thanks to the actions of Jun. One's waiting for death to happen, while the other's living a dead married life, and together in each other they manage to feel some fleeting moments of happiness into their lives. Kaoru's perspective is rather interesting, as she begins with a conflict of initial loathing, and that of forgiveness and thankfulness for being awakened from her state of nonchalance from her relationships.

Kite's film has a rather bleak narrative throughout, though I suppose like any other death row movie, this is likely a given in its sombre setting of a person's final days. It's presentation and colours are hued in greys and shadows, and while I can't vouch for the authenticity of the Japanese death row and prison system, this film if accurate does provide an ample glimpse into life behind bars, in its solitary confinements, breaths of fresh air, and in many ways the relative humane treatment of inmates (this is no Prison on Fire of course). We don't get to see the exact final moment down to the gallows, as that is not this film.

Instead it became a rather unconventional love story of a couple brought together under unpleasant circumstances, and having their feelings muted and barricaded by a societal system of punishment. Their spiritual connection leads all the way to a rather strange consummation of their romantic relationship (again to accentuate acts of sweet desperation, and for that made this film stand out from those in the same death row genre films), though the last act and resolution seemed rather hurried. Still recommended for the leads' Masashi Kubota and Machiko Ono strong, convincing portrayals as they carried the weight of the film on their shoulders.

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