Friday, July 31, 2009

REVIEW: My Darling of the Mountains

山のあなた〜徳市の恋〜 (Yama no anata 〜 Toku shi no koi)

Released: 2008


Katsuhiro Ishii

Tsuyoshi Kusanagi
Ryo Kase

Hirofumi Arai
Shin'ichi Tsutsumi

Running time: 94 min.

Reviewed by Eric Evans

Is it unfair to judge a film based on a failure to meet, or even address, viewer expectations?
As much as I enjoy "Funky Forest", I feel it's something of a step backward for Katsuhito Ishii after progressing from "Party 7" to "The Taste of Tea". "Tea" is brilliant, a series of interconnecting narratives with surreal tangents, whereas "Funky" is nothing but the tangents. It's fun, but it seems like something of an indulgence, and I found myself wishing Ishii would have chosen a few of the characters and crafted a more traditional film from the material. So when I learned that his next film was a remake--a faithful one, yet!--of the 1938 film "The Masseurs and the Woman" ("Anma to Onna") I was surprised and optimistic. How would Ishii, one of the cinema's premier stylists, visually invigorate this quiet story about unrequited love--animation? Magical realism? Extraterrestrials? How would he astound the audience this time?
Turns out he did the most surprising thing he could. He played it straight.

The resulting film, "My Darling of the Mountains" ("Yama no anata - Tokuichi no koi"), doesn't quite work. It is warmly shot and the principals are well cast, but it feels as if there's some vital element missing. What went wrong? Foremost is its pace: the original clocks in at just over an hour, but Ishii's remake is 94 minutes and feels much longer. You expect a pastoral to have a relaxed, leisurely tempo but some of the scenes are overlong, particularly those featuring the pack of masseurs which are intended as comic relief but fall flat. Ishii cast a familiar rogues gallery of J-film indie talent in these roles (look for Yoshiyuki Morishita in the least convincing bald wig in years), but there's no payoff. They're given little to do other than to bumble into one another, and once the novelty of seeing the familiar faces wears off there's nothing left. The biggest distractions, however, are the special effects. The scenes in the center of town are green-screened, and not particularly well; if the addition of digital dust was intended as a camouflaging device it fails miserably. In a post-"Always" world it might be tempting for productions to forego the time and expense of building actual sets, but given the effectiveness of the other location shots in the film the digital town center is a strange, unfortunate choice. This film relies on the intimacy of the characters and the beauty of the natural setting, and the effects in those few town scenes are so glaringly poor that they pluck the viewer right out of the narrative.

The film isn't a total failure by any stretch. The main cast is excellent, especially Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, who manages to reinvent himself as a masseur simultaneously suffering from a superiority complex and shyness. That he followed this revelatory performance with a bout of public drunkenness and nudity is depressing; this film showcases his talents as a uniquely expressive actor. Several reviewers took offense at what they considered stereotypes of blind characters, but there's nothing here that any Zatoichi film hasn't ladled on and besides, the urban legend of the blind having enhanced other senses makes for good storytelling. Shinichi Tsutsumi and Ryo Kase are both predictably fine in limited roles, and child actor Ryohei Hirota holds his own in his scenes.

Here's the thing: I really wanted to enjoy "My Darling of the Mountains", but while watching it I just couldn't shake the feeling that something was about to happen. Nothing does. Had I gone into the experience not knowing Ishii was the creative force behind it I may have been slightly more appreciative, but with that knowledge it's something of a letdown. Temper your expectations and it's a pleasant enough diversion, but well short of a classic.

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