Friday, September 18, 2009

TIFF '09 REVIEW: Bare Essence of Life

(Urutora Miraku Rurabu Sutoorii)

Released: 2009

Satoko Yokohama

Ken'ichi Matsuyama
Kumiko Aso

Misako Watanabe
Yoshio Harada

Running time: 120 min.

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

The wiring in Yojin's head is different than most people's. It's not broken, it's just different. He tends to repeat words, can't sit still and loses focus on conversations. He's also prone to acting up, likes to throw things around the place and keeps a long string of alarm clocks set to remind him to do basic tasks. So even though the rest of him is 25 years old, his brain is actually in a very childish state. He doesn't worry about this much until Machiko, the new school teacher, arrives in town from Tokyo and he becomes smitten with her. Thus begins the plot of Satoko Yokohama's "Bare Essence Of Life" - a gentle, sometimes funny, sometimes strange and occasionally surreal look at these two people as well as our nature as human beings to control what scares us.

Yojin likes her immediately, but she's a bit frightened by his actions. One evening he tries to pull her out of her classroom through a window while she is still minding several children, so one can somewhat understand her concerns. The children, however, seem to love him and treat him like one of their own by pestering and playing with him in the same way as the rest of their class. This easy friendship Yojin has with kids leads him to play with a small boy in his backyard garden one day and it's here that he discovers something - getting sprayed with pesticide calms him down and clears his brain. That night he has a long talk with Machiko as he walks her home and he realizes that she might prefer the clear headed version of himself as opposed to the regular version. So he starts to spray himself regularly.

It's during one of these walks home (each done in lovely, long single takes) that the story's general theme surfaces. Machiko tells Yojin about her version of evolutionary theory - as humanity makes its world safer and further controls unpredictable elements like Mother Nature, we stop evolving. It's a bit of a circular argument (using Machiko's own example, if humanity evolves in order to find a way to stop any further wars won't we then hit another evolutionary wall?), but the details are somewhat besides the point. It's an interesting viewpoint on man's love/hate relationship with the natural world around us and the extent that we should combat it. The film is filled with references and ties between humanity, nature and our fears such as the dusting of crops via helicopter, beautiful close-ups of grass and insects, and Yojin's own struggles to make sense of his Grandfather's gardening lessons on audio tape as he tries to keep bugs away from the cabbage. It also provides a wonderful look at small town rural life and its languid pace.

We get to spend quality time with these characters via numerous long takes like those walks home. There's typically very few edits during conversations, so it gives the viewer a relaxed, comfortable and very natural way of getting to know both Yojin and Machiko (not unlike Nobuhiro Yamashita's "Linda Linda Linda" and "A Gentle Breeze In The Village"). Machiko is a bit unsteady herself since she lost the love of her life recently via a car accident. He was already essentially lost to her due to his philandering, but she seems deeply perturbed about the fact that his head was severed during the crash and as yet not found. She still somehow holds out hope that he may one day talk with her - if only that head could be found. Meanwhile, Yojin is convinced that he's actually evolving (he mixes up which pesticides he uses on himself so that he won't gain tolerance to them), but is actually beginning to suffer some real health problems. This leads to some very unexpected and magical moments that work their way into the latter portion of this very engaging film. It's a first the second feature by Yokohama (who also wrote the screenplay) and I look forward to any future theories she cares to share with us through her films.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.


Nick said...

I love this movie too, but a quick correction: This is actually Yokohama's second feature. Her first was the indie 'German + Rain.'

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Nick, I'll correct the post. I knew about "German + Rain", but for some reason thought it was a short.