Hirokazu Koreeda: A Neorealist Approach to Filmmaking

I first watched Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows after it was released in the U.S. I remember this being an emotionally draining viewing experience. This cinematically simple yet absolutely gut-wrenching film about 12-year-old Akira who is left to care for his three younger siblings when their mother abandons them lingered in my mind. Even though I found Nobody Knows to be moving, the film did not launch any sort of study of Koreeda or Japanese cinema on my part.

I revisited Nobody Knows five years later when I was researching independent filmmaker So Yong Kim’s 2006 film, In Between Days.  Kim and her husband, filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray (The Exploding Girl) have a wonderful creative partnership that has produced some of the best American independent films of the last five years. They often hold various roles on each other’s projects. Ben Howe, a producer on their films, has explained, “It’s almost as if [Kim and Gray] think together. It’s definitely one or the other’s film, but every decision is made with the other one close in mind.” This only strengthens Gray and Kim’s commitment to making great films no matter the struggle to get them made. In Between Days was made over a two-week period on a limited budget. The result is an aesthetically beautiful and poetic portrait of a teenage Korean girl as she struggles to assimilate to American culture. It’s an overwhelmingly naturalistic representation of female  existence and teenage isolation.

Nobody Knows comes into focus when examining So Yong Kim’s second feature Treeless Mountain. Both films have strikingly similar themes. Like Nobody KnowsTreeless Mountain deals with children who have been abandoned. The film follows two sisters, ages 6 and 4, as they deal with their mother’s absence and are sent to live with various family members. The story is loosely based from Kim’s childhood experiences in South Korea.

When Kim began to work on this film, she sought out the advice of Koreeda about directing children and shooting in 16mm. With the help of a translator,Koreeda gave a long and detailed answer. At the end of the conversation, the translator turned to Kim and said, “Eda-san says 16mm very good!” Her question might not have been answered but there is no doubt the influence that Nobody Knows had on Kim and her approach to Treeless Mountain.

During the 2009 Tribeca Film Festbaival, Gray and Kim interviewed Koreeda about his 2009 film Still Walking. It’s a fascinating and revealing conversation between the three filmmakers about Koreeda’s background, influences, and techniques. One of So Yong Kim’s questions, I think, shows how Koreeda’s work has influenced her approach to filmmaking.

So Yong Kim: I think interviews are mostly for other filmmakers to learn from directors. Back when it came out, I read an interview about Nobody Knows, because I wanted to learn how you made the film and worked with your actors, and with the camera, etc. The question I have about Still Walking is about working with an ensemble of professional actors. How is that different than working with nonactors, like in Nobody Knows?

Hirokazu Koreeda: In the case of Still Walking, I wrote a very, very detailed, hammered-out screenplay, and then I read through it with the actors, and then based on that I revised the script. Then I did blocking on the set, and then I had the actors read, just to make sure they could read the lines in the time it took to walk across the set. I did all this before shooting to ensure that the atmosphere would look lived-in by the actors.

And with Nobody Knows, you know, it’s the same goal as with Still Walking. But because I had essentially nonactors, even though there was a script, I never gave it to actors at all. I never gave them dialogue until I was in the room, ready to roll the camera. And then I would say, “Why don’t you try saying something like this?”

So, I took the opposite approach with actors in opposite situations. With the veterans, I timed it within an inch of its life to make it look natural and lived-in, and with the nonactors, I did it 100% spontaneous to make it look lived-in and spontaneous.

So Yong Kim: Which way do you prefer to work?

Hirokazu Koreeda: I don’t really have a particular filmmaking style or method. The goal is finding how to make a particular character in a particular film or setting look as charming and appealing as possible. So whatever it takes.

Personally, I prefer the Nobody Knows method, but there is the guilt that I am stealing laughter and smiles from children for my movie. I have genuine guilt about that, and I had none of that for Still Walking, because I hadn’t stolen anything from anybody.

Even though Koreeda says that he doesn’t have a particular filmmaking style or method, here Koreeda is broadly discussing a neorealist approach to filmmaking. You can see how Koreeda’s style, however you may define it, has influenced Gray and Kim’s work. These three filmmakers aim to create the most realistically feeling films imaginable, as if life is unfolding on the screen as it naturally occurs. More importantly, from Koreeda’s work and even this interview, you can see how far reaching the director’s lens is when it comes to who his work and his filmmaking techniques influences stateside.

This post is part of the Japanese Cinema blogathon hosted by Cinema Fanatic and Japan Cinema. Please donate if you can.

Poster Fix: The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

The poster for Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) has been released. I am already in love. The poster, which to me looks like the cover of a romance novella,  is so Almodóvar.

The Skin That I Inhabit, which releases in September, reunites the Spanish director with his old collaborator Antonio Banderas. Before Banderas made it big in Hollywood, he starred in five Almodóvar films: Labyrinth of Passion, Laws of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and, my personal favorite, Matador.

Banderas plays a plastic surgeon obsessed with finding the men who raped his daughter. It is a horror story based on Thierry Jonquet‘s novel Mygale. I expect the film to tackle many of the same themes (sex, death, misogyny) seen throughout Almodóvar’s work. I am also intrigued by how Almodóvar will present the father-daughter relationship. Father figures are noticeably absent in his films in favor of female solidarity. Needless to say, I am intrigued and excited.

What are your thoughts on the poster and Almodóvar’s upcoming film?

A Second Chance for Vincere

A scene from Marco Bellocchio's Vincere

When a film you did not particularly enjoy wins a critics award, it dredges up a series of thoughts and questions. This happened to me when Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno received the National Society of Film Critics Award for best actress. Mezzogiorno was rewarded for her portrayal of Ida Dalser, Benito Mussolini’s alleged first wife, in Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere. I saw most of Vincere at the Cannes Film Festival and from what I remembered, it was not my favorite film.

This was my first impression:

Vincere, however, is another story. I walked out after an hour and a half. The biopic tells the story of Mussolini’s first wife, Ida Dalser, played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno. Dalser married Mussolini in 1914 but the Italian dictator denied their marriage. She spent much of her life confined in asylums. The film does not do this compelling story justice. It is poorly constructed with too much emphasis on found footage. It does not concretely establish the foundation of the relationship, making Ida an unsympathetic character. All in all, not worth the 30 minute wait in the rush line.

I admit that I didn’t give Vincere a fair chance. Of course I have many excuses for why I walked out. It was the middle of the festival and I was exhausted. I had just seen Pedro Almodovar’s Los Abrazos Rotos that morning… and I was exhausted.  I had to be at my internship at 1 p.m. and the movie started at around 11:30. After the wait in the rush line and a first hour that I found less than enjoyable, leaving early made sense.

Then I forgot about Vincere. It barely made a dent in my memories of Cannes.

After learning that Mezzogiorno was named the best actress over favorites like Natalie Portman and Annette Bening, I realized that maybe I should give Vincere my full attention.

After watching Vincere in its entirety, some of my opinions are the same. It is a compelling story but the interpretation was scattered.  The found footage can be jarring and off-putting. Ida Dalser is a character who teeters on the edge of sympathetic, crazy, and irritating.

What struck me more profoundly is how Vincere is all about seduction. The opening sequence is of Mussolini, played by Filippo Timi, delivering an emphatic challenge to God to strike him down if God does exist. In the audience is Ida Dalser watching Mussolini with a piercing stare as she becomes seduced by his charisma, energy, and rhetoric. This is followed by the first use of found footage and Carlo Crivelli’s operatic score. The word, Vincere, is flashed over phallic imagery of smokestacks that can easily be interpreted as weaponry. The footage segues into images of industry, trains, cathedrals, and fashion models – images that are representative of Milan. The found footage and newsreels provides the historical context for Mussolini’s rise to power and it shows how Mussolini seduced the Italian people. It is fascinating how Mussolini’s sexual seduction of Dalser is equated with his rise to political power.

Dalser holds no power over Mussolini, yet he controls every aspect of her life. Mezzogiorno’s performance as this scorned woman resigned to living in asylums takes center stage. I’m still not crazy about Vincere but it is Mezzogiorno’s mesmerizing performance that carries this film.

“Vincere” means “to win” which is an ironic title because no one – not Dalser, the Italians, and certainly not Mussolini – wins at the film’s conclusion. Except, maybe, the audience. I see that now.

Review: My Name is Khan (2010)

My Name is Khan: A post-9/11 epic Bollywood journey for love

“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.”

These are the words Rizwan Khan, a Indian Muslim immigrant living in California, wants to say to the President of the United States. Khan travels across the country for nearly a year by plane, bus and foot to meet the Pre ident (first Bush and then Obama) to share his message, attracting attention from federal authorities and the media. But Khan, who suffers from Asperger Syndrome, doesn’t quite understand why the media, authorities, and the American public are invigorated by his journey. Khan doesn’t see the message of identity and tolerance that he is spreading. As far as Khan knows, he is simply traveling across the country for love and to reunify his family after a great tragedy.

Continue reading “Review: My Name is Khan (2010)”

Los Abrazos Rotos and Vincere

I saw two competition films today, Los Abrazos Rotos (dir. Almodovar) and Vincere (dir. Marco Bellocchio).

Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces) is Spanish directors 17th feature film. It stars Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homer. Homer plays Mateo, a film director who was blinded in a car accident 14 years ago. Cruz plays his lover Lena. Like Bad Education and Talk to Her, the film is a puzzle. It is also reminiscent of Almodovar’s 1988 classic Woman on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, often recreating scenes from film with Lena’s character performing the role of Pena. It’s a great film, so check it out when you can.

Vincere, however, is another story. I walked out after an hour and a half. The biopic tells the story of Mussolini’s first wife, Ida Dalser, played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno. Dalser married Mussolini in 1914 but the Italian dictator denied their marriage and son. She spent much of her life confined in asylums. The film does not do this compelling story justice. It is poorly constructed with too much emphasis on found footage. It does not concretely establish the foundation of the relationship, making Ida an unsympathetic character. All in all, not worth the 30 minute wait in the rush line.