Winning the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival last year, I actually found it a tad difficult to appreciate this piece by Naomi Kawase, as compared to Shara. I am beginning to suspect that I have a profound disengagement with movies that deal with grief and loss, especially when it takes on a very detached approach in some ways with the characters constantly unable to deal with those emotions for the most parts.
The closing film of this year's Japanese Film Festival, the movie opened true to Kawase's penchant for capturing moving air. Here, we see lush greenery on tree tops dancing to the motion of wind, and vast open fields where blades of grass sway back and forth when caressed by the breeze. It's like watching a National Geographic episode of forests and greenery before the opening credits kicked in to start the film proper. I even suspected that M Night Shyamalan could have paid homage in his The Happening, which also had plenty of such shots put into it.
The story tells of the relationship that formed between Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) and Machiko (Machiko Ono), the former an old man in an elderly home who has been aloof after the lost of his wife some 33 years ago. 33 years is an extremely long time, and to miss someone for that long, well, you know how strong his emotions are to his wife. On the other hand, Machiko is a staff at the same elderly home, but she too is grieving internally for the loss of her son, and her husband squarely puts the responsibility and blame on her petite shoulders.
While initially starting off on the wrong foot with fiery misunderstanding, they soon hit it off in a game of tag in the great outdoors, where the camera pulls back to reveal again the large open spaces, and the two protagonists finding and connecting with each other, two tiny creatures in the space that Nature offered, only to act as a precursor of a more adventurous outing that would come soon after, in an excursion that took a turn for the unexpected when their car ran into a ditch.
In what seemed to be a wandering around aimlessly on foot deep inside nature herself, both Shigeki and Machiko had to depend on each other to keep to their wildlife tour, with the former having the objective of wanting to look for his late wife's grave, like a pilgrimage in itself. The observations from far earlier gives way to a more intimate look at the two, and Shigeki turned into some kind of enigma, clutching his all important haversack, as they go from set piece to set piece, some quaintly quiet, while others I seem to make no headway from sudden outbursts which persisted as being more whiny than anything else.
Might be a masterpiece for some to appreciate, especially with its beautiful cinematography, but everything else was certainly lost on me probably due to my lack of extreme patience, and I grief in not being able to be moved by this movie.
Director Naomi Kawase was in attendance for a panel discussion and Q&A session with the audience, and explained that The Mourning Forest was supported by many people, and made her treasure it, while marking a milestone for her. Winning The Grand Prix prize at Cannes International Film Festival last year, she initially wasn’t told what or whether the film won an award when invited to the prize ceremony, and hence didn’t prepare a thank-you speech for it. Here’s an excerpt of tonight’s Q&A:
Q: How has the working relationship with Machiko Ono evolved over the projects you’ve both worked on?
Naomi Kawase (NK): It was in Moe No Suzaku that I discovered her. For The Mourning Forest she had actually applied during the audition for the role, and coincidentally because she fit the role, she was selected.
Q: Did you have any alternate endings in mind for The Mourning Forest?
NK: Yes I did have a few endings, which were centering around the returning of the protagonists to real life. In the making-of documentary, it documented the “phantom” mystery ending. As for the helicopter, we actually dreamt that it does a rescue, and we had actually filmed that!
Q: May I know what is your process in directing your actors?
NK: It takes a lot of time. As a director I create an environment where they don’t even notice the camera. I don’t use terms like “action!” or “cut!” but rather an equivalent with “start” and “thank you”. The elderly people in The Mourning Forest were very natural, and I got my staff to interact with them a lot. The protagonist (played by Shigeki Uda) was really an ordinary man whom I discovered at a bookshop near my home, and I thought that he would be perfect for the role. For scenes like the watermelon scene, I was capturing the moment on film. I prefer for the actors to feel and experience the characters for themselves.
Q: How do you decide whether the camera should be handheld, or mounted on a tripod?
NK: This is usually decided between the cameraman and me, and we go by feeling and intuition, going by the flow of the characters in a scene, and allowing the camera to follow that flow.
Q: You have a lot of personal touches in your movies. Do you have a fear that it may not be reaching out to a wider audience because of that?
NK: No, not at all. In fact just before Kya Ka Ra Ba A (Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth), I had thought about giving up filmmaking, but a man told me that even if the films were to be personal, there would always be an audience for them.
Q: If you find that your actors are “acting”, how do you direct them back to genuine feelings again?
NK: I start by believing in them. I believe that each one of them has a story to tell, and I wait. And while waiting, sometimes I have an idea to motivate them, or to relate an experience to them. They will eventually get to the point. I have seen some brilliant moments that they can bring out.
Q: Your films seem to dwell on the themes of the cycle of life and death?
NK: It’s because I don’t know the answer that I’m obsessed with finding it. Perhaps it starts off with the fear of death, thinking and worrying about it. Different people have different versions of enlightenment. One commonality is what is now, what is present, and what that meaning is to us.
Naomi Kawase also shared about her experience working on If Only The Whole World Loved Me, which was an international film done overseas, a departure from familiar themes, collaborating with a cameraman from France, and working with a popular film actress. She likened it to an adventure, working with different people coming together to make one film.