Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Copyright 2004





Hirokazu Kore-eda: Memory to bridge distance

CINEMA IS often a playback process. Events and experiences are fished out of the dark and deep crevices of memory and given a two-dimensional life on film. Some directors are conscious of this. Some are not. Some admit it. Some do not.

Japan's young Hirokazu Kore-eda is obsessed with human memory, and never misses a chance to rewind all that is stored in his own. His fascination for this aspect of life was triggered by a happening. ``My grandfather became senile when I was six,'' he told me at Cannes in May 2001. ``Alzheimer's was not known and none in my family understood what had happened to him. Gradually, his mind went. He stopped recognising us. He stopped recognising himself.''

Kore-eda, who made acclaimed documentaries before his first feature, ``Maboroshi'' in 1995, has experimented with memory, examining both its lighter and darker manifestations. Here, a young widow needs a long time to get over the memory of her husband, who commits suicide.

In his second creation, the 1998 ``After Life'', the newly dead take their most cherished memory to eternity.

Kore-eda's latest movie, ``Distance'' - which competed at Cannes - also centres on memory. Four people, whose relatives were part of a religious sect (the obvious reference here is to Aum Shinrikyo, which tried poisoning the Tokyo subway system about six years ago) and who were murdered by other members, gather on the anniversary of their deaths.

Any other auteur might have been tempted to sensationalise his frames. Not Kore-eda. With an almost documentary precision and style - which some may find boring - he examines how memory lights up the past and shapes the present.

Much like the masters he admires (Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson), this Japanese director stays clear of linear narration. No drama. No music to get the audience on emotional high or low. No cue, whatsoever.

A Japanese critic says: ``One danger of such an approach is over intellectualisation. A film that is all theorising head, no feeling heart... But being the good documentarian, he wants to show, not tell; to be the fly on the wall, not the performer in the spotlight.''

Kore-eda did not even write all the dialogue. He set up the scenes, and gave his artistes complete freedom to express themselves. ``I wanted them to discover their own words, their own feelings. They appear happy initially, almost light-hearted. But the mood changes later.''

And what do we see then? The suffering of the characters, their loneliness as they struggle to cope with their disturbing memories. We observe all these with chilling clarity as we would real incidents.

Ultimately, the film explores the magnitude of distances. ``A distance between those who die believing in absolute truths, and those who remain alive amidst complexity and contradiction. A distance between four people who cannot share their agony or grief. A distance between these characters and us.''

Kore-eda hopes that if this last distance can, for the viewer, be dismissed by watching, it would make him immensely happy. And he makes every effort to bridge this distance.

``Distance'' has nothing staged about it. There is nothing to say that it is a piece of celluloid.

Yes, in the bargain, it may appear trite, especially to one brought up on Indian melodrama and a largely Hollywood fare of conscious acting and trying to look natural at the same time.

However, the movie goes far beyond mere form. It has a provocative content. It does not even imply that the cult was wholly responsible for the massacre. ``The world is not divided into black and white. If the cult was the cancer, the Japanese society is the disease.'' This is how closely Kore-eda links the two, a view that will be generally unacceptable in that country.

``Distance'' examines certain basic human values in society, and tries telling us that faults often lie with individuals, faults which then multiply to become a collective evil. It may be easy to point our fingers at others, at society. ``But each one of us is to be blamed for what is happening outside our own home, our own neighbourhood.''

The point is, why were men and women drawn to Aum in the first place. ``I admit that what the sect did was terrible. It had no business to have done what it did. But the people who went to it had obviously something lacking in them. They were craving for something that they found it difficult to obtain from their society.''

Kore-eda hints at something deeper than this when he avers that ``a feeling of community is missing in Japan''. And ``Distance'' states quite clearly that men went to Aum in search of brotherhood, a kind of affinity that they could not find in the larger community.

In the end, ``Distance'' - having stimulated us into a high - poses many more questions than it answers. ``I really am not one to give messages'', Kore-eda smiles.

But the one in his work cannot be missed, even though it is hardly ever apparent.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 29 2001)

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