Sunday, May 6, 2012

But Nothing Happens In This Film (Still Walking ****)

There is a particular kind of complaint that moviegoers sometimes voice: Nothing happens in this film. I have done this myself. And as I dig into my brain as to when I might have first done so, my memories coil all the way back to an utterance made in relation to a 1974 Indian film called Avishkaar ("Experiment"; in retrospect, how much more experimental could a film have been than one that announced it in its very title). Upon watching this film on television as a child of eight or nine in India, and already by then conditioned by the steady and robust ingestion of the standard Bollywood film diet, I recall telling my sister with utter incredulity: how can someone make a film where nothing happens? Of course, a lot happened in that film, but not within the specifics of the sharply angular plot turns I expected then from a cinematic experience.

These were the thoughts that came to me as I watched the Japanese film Still Walking for the first time. At first glance, nothing substantive appears to happen in this film. Over the course of a day, a family gets together in a small town away from Tokyo. A brother and sister visit their elderly parents in the home they grew up in, and they bring their own spouses and children along. They talk. They eat. They go for walks. They cook. There are resentments. There are laughs. There is remembering of the past. And by the time the next morning comes along, the families are on their way back to their original lives.

All of this transpires with a rhythm that is unrushed. And a gentleness that suffuses the entire film. To the impatient viewer this film may seem formless, purposeless, without substance.

But like the best films, this movie takes a specific experience, in this case a family reunion in contemporary Japan, and makes it resonate with universal truths. And you realize that the film has all along planned, to bring within its sight of observation, all those things in the world that we ought to care about.

To map out the members of the family in detail is to take away from the quiet pleasures of this film. Here is the grown-up daughter, now a wife and mother herself, who does not have the desire to cook the elaborate dishes that are so much a part of her mother's life. Here is the patriarch of the family, who having retired now from his physician's practice, is lost, but he still exerts the same ruthless command over his children that he probably has all his life; he is short and brusque with them and everyone walks around him on eggshells. And yet, given more consideration, it is his wife who is quietly driving the tides in this household. There is the disapproval that is inherent in parents from an older generation, sure. But there are also the grown children who feel that they can never measure up to their parents' expectations, and while oppressed by it, are too good-natured to make much of it. And inevitably there has been a death of someone young, from which the family has never recovered; years since the death, it is something that is palpably part of the present. There is disapproval of professions taken up by sons and daughters that are outside of rigidly traditional vocations. There is the new daughter-in-law trying to integrate into the larger family, and only slowly realizing the extent to which she will need to give in, in order to do so. There is the lament that the older parents spend more time remembering the dead than in considering the ones alive and present.

Does any of this strike a chord of recognition? To watch the delicate grace with which the ties within this family are revealed is to realize the accomplishment of this film. There is not a bad or selfish or thoughtless person to be found here. The script is too nuanced to allow an easy give such as that. These are people who all mean well, and are inherently good human beings. But even then, unintentional affronts occur. Something said innocently to one person unexpectedly becomes cruel within the context of the person it was never meant for. The younger generation grapples with modern ideals that are tugging and picking at traditional mores, while the older parents do not know how to behave in any way other than how they were taught. And yet, bonds are made between kids and grandparents. Grief manifests unexpectedly. Young children learn a little bit about being grown up. And the bickering between the older couple, while sometimes cruel, hides the inevitability of two lives irreversibly entwined together.

The director of Still Walking, Hirokazu Koreeda, frames the film with long shots. Of family members gathering around the dinner table in conversation. Of individuals coming and leaving the kitchen, in and out of the camera frame. Of children playing in the periphery as elders talk. Sometimes many speak at once, as in an Altman film. But Koreeda summons a larger cinematic giant in his deft, non-judgmental, minimalist take on families: Yasujiro Ozu. In fact there is much in this film that appears to bear the blueprint from Ozu's Tokyo Story. In cinema, it is easy to depict characters that are miserable or mean, but to have wondrous actors display decency and kindness of spirit takes a greater gift. Koreeda seems best poised to carry this gift forward from Ozu. To have a viewer come away from a film hungering to spend more time with its characters is a high accomplishment. To have him recognize his own life within it, is a higher laurel still.

Many years ago, Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Touchez Pas au Grisbi, "I responded to the way (the film) understood that a great movie can involve not plot, but life, and the daily living of it, and that although movies can amuse and excite us, their greatest consolation comes when they understand us". He could have been talking about Still Walking.

I have come back to Still Walking and re-watched it with gratitude, peeling layers from it, and finding truisms within almost every piece of its dialog. I can think of few better ways to spend two hours of my life.

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