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.

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Review: Winter’s Bone (2010)

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone

Winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize, Winter’s Bone is a breed of independent filmmaking unlike any other. Adapted from a 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone takes a grippingly realistic look at life in the impoverished Ozarks region in southwestern Missouri. Yet it is also a frightening country noir – a term coined by Woodrell – about the dangerous blood ties that drive much of the film’s narrative.

17-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is the primary caretaker for her young siblings and her incapacitated mother. She learns that her father, a notorious methamphetamine dealer, has vanished and that after his last arrest, he put her family’s property up as bond.  To save her home and protect her family, Ree must find her father, dead or alive.

Ree treks through the backwoods, begging various family members for information on her absentee father’s whereabouts to no avail. Her extended family, including her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) are guided by a code of  silence that keeps them pitted against the law. When the clans ways are threatened by Ree’s search, she is given false leads and, worst of all, beaten.  In spite of her desire and attempts to escape her roots, Ree has been initiated in.

Winter’s Bone is strikingly similar to Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River. Familial strife is centered around dire economic and political circumstance. Like Frozen River, Winter’s Bone can arguably be defined as a Neo-Neorealist film, those American independent films that have emerged since 2006 and depict harshly realistic portrayals of American life. The noir aspects of Winter’s Bone sometimes mask what is Neorealistic – the long takes, the presence of nonprofessional actors, the use of a real setting. These techniques and markers of authenticity, such as when a banjo-laced performance graces the screen, coupled with the harrowing dangers of Ree’s quest only magnify the emotional intensity of the film.

Jennifer Lawrence’s unforgettable performance is something marvelous. In a film dependent on one character’s tenacity, Lawrence carries the film with her low Southern accent and every stubborn stare. Ree has been dealt unfortunate cards. Her responsibilities to her siblings means she cannot escape her ancestral ties, although that would never be an easy achievement for her to begin with. At just 17, her choices could mean life and death. This fact never escapes us because of Lawrence’s performance.

The message behind Winter’s Bone is clear. As long as a version of the family structure survives, then the path to getting there, however horrific it may be, is worth the struggle.

The Return of my Avatar-Induced Insomnia

At 2 AM I found myself in a familiar place – wide awake and thinking about Avatar.

This is how Avatar makes me feel

From about mid-January to until May I spent many sleepless nights pacing back and forth in my claustrophobic dorm room, ranting about James Cameron’s 3-D-palooza. Before you think I’m completely crazy, and you have good reason to because what completely sane person spends months hung up on one movie, in my defense I was completely focused on my senior thesis at the time. When you’re endlessly researching and writing about American identity and Neorealism, it is fairly easy to be sidetracked and, in my case, irrationally distressed by a movie that is the polar opposite of a Neorealist film.

Eventually, I moved on. I completed my thesis and the media craze surrounding Avatar died down. I didn’t have to blog about Avatar winning Oscars it didn’t deserve and I didn’t to worry about Avatar haunting my existence. (Except for one disastrous night this summer when Avatar was playing in a nearby park. Attempting to  sleep while the sounds of the Na’vi are blasting is torture. But I digress.)

Then yesterday, Cameron had to announce that his next projects will be Avatar 2 and Avatar 3, scheduled for December 2014 and December 2015.

Considering how Cameron rails against anything other than native 3-D, that is movies that tack 3D effects on at the last minute to attract audiences rather than developing a film as a 3-D film from the start. (I like to imagine Cameron sitting through a screening of Eclipse and complaining about the special effects. Cameron probably loves the story since he can’t recognize a bad story even if it was right in front of him on a green screen for three hours.)

With the announcement, my absolute hatred of Avatar and all those feelings I successfully pushed aside months ago came flying back. I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking about Avatar and what story Cameron would push out. A civil war between the Na’vi? More of a terribly written, uninteresting love story? The possibilities are endless.

It is one thing to take the masterful technology, which is what 3D is and use it to make an interesting, thoughtful film that is not all about the sparkly things in front of your eyes. But that is exactly what Avatar does. The movie uses the guise of 3-D as a way mask the fact that what it doesn’t really have anything else going for it. This makes me cringe.

As long Pandora exists and is going to be revisited twice more, I don’t think I’ll ever sleep comfortably again.

Here I Go: Thesis Away

Months ago I posted that I was writing a senior honors thesis on film. At the time, I didn’t know what it would be on. But after months of deliberation I finally figured out, more or less, what I am researching: American Identity in post-9/11 American Independent Cinema. (Sometimes I wonder if this topic makes me sound way more intelligent than I really am, but I digress.)

I am focusing on three films: Frozen River (2008), In Between Days (2006), and Goodbye Solo (2008). On the surface, these three films seem completely unrelated but what I have found that they are linked by a foremost a common character and narrative: the immigrant. This films question how American identity and the American Creed are changing in the twenty first century as a result of immigration. Or at least, that is what I am trying to show.

Here are the trailers for Frozen River and Goodbye Solo:

And here is an interview with filmmakers So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray. The more I research their work, the more I admire their dedication to independent filmmaking as a way to produce quality and exceptional stories and works of art.

The Neo-Neo Realism Debate

Last Sunday, A.O Scott wrote what I found to be an intriguing article on Neo-Neo Realism, films directed by emerging American filmmakers. Here is an excerpt:

What kind of movies do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.

Goodbye Solo (2008, dir. Ramin Bahrani)
In response to this article, Richard Brody, an editor at the New Yorker, presented 8 reasons why he disagrees with Scott’s arguments regarding neo-neo realism fall flat. Here is an excerpt:

“Neo-Neo Realism,” A. O. Scott’s piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (and already online), about a new trend in American independent filmmaking, offers lots to think about. His argument is based mainly on the recent films Wendy and Lucy, Ballast, and Frozen River, as well as the films of Ramin Bahrani (whose Goodbye Solo will be released on March 27), made on location in diverse American locations, about working-class characters, sometimes using non-professional actors. These are films made skillfully and sincerely under difficult circumstances; they are, in many ways, admirable. But I think that Scott makes a little too much of them. His ambitious article ranges widely over the history of cinema; I think it rests on questionable premises and reaches dubious conclusions.

Frozen River (dir. Courtney Hunt, 2008)

His numbered list of eight objections, running to more than 1,000 words, was meant to demonstrate that my essay “rests on questionable premises and reaches dubious conclusions.” This is Mr. Brody’s way of saying that he and I like different movies, and that he wishes I had not paid so much attention to Wendy and Lucy, Ballast and the films of Ramin Bahrani, director of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. (For some reason, he also twice makes mention of Frozen River, which is not discussed in my article.) He would rather I had discussed Gran Torino, Frownland and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

This whole debate, for me at least, is amazing. I love it when two people engage in intellectual banter. I personally agree with A.O Scott, but many people in addition to Brody find flaws in his article. What are your thoughts on neo-neo realism and on this debate?