Following his recent short film "The White Flower," Edmund Yeo next shifted his attention to a pair of thematically linked works: "Inhalation" and "Exhalation." The former, shot in Klang, Malaysia, was a means of giving himself a creative boost after the larger, more rigorous production of the Japanese "Exhalation." Thus, Yeo jokingly refers to the two films as his "Chungking Express" and "Ashes of Time." Yet while they bear certain differences, it is also quite clear that they both stem from a distinctive cinematic voice.
"Exhalation" is set shortly after the death of a young man named Yosuke. Naoko (Kiki Sugino) and Sayuri (Tomoe Shinohara) reunite in their small hometown to prepare for the funeral. Naoko had previously decided to set out for Tokyo on her own while Sayuri remained behind to help with her father’s restaurant. Together, the two of them talk about Yosuke and visit the mirror-adorned road in the woods where he died. They go to a stream, where they find squares of paper and a folded crane in the water, and an abandoned building where hidden truths are shared. Impulsively, Naoko decides to go back to Tokyo before the funeral, leaving each of the two women alone in their later waves of grief.
As with "Inhalation," "Exhalation" is centered on characters who are scarred by events from the past that they try to make peace with – or, at least, better understand. In many of Yeo’s films, his characters engage in deep, intimate conversations in quiet public spaces – beaches, residential areas ("The White Flower"), city streets at night ("Kingyo," "Inhalation"). In a similar fashion, Naoko and Sayuri go to different places in the rural town while considering their respective relationships with Yosuke. In Naoko’s case, she must accept that the love he had for her will remain forever unrequited while Sayuri seems to have formed a more complicated connection with him that has been painfully severed.
Yeo and co-writer Maiko Itagaki’s examination of these subjects are given a fittingly poetic treatment by Shin Hayasaka’s cinematography and Yeo’s direction. Most of the film is in high contrast black-and-white, creating striking images that emphasize the natural and urban settings and the actors’ faces. Many times, the ghostly glow of Naoko and Sayuri’s faces arising from the inky depths of their black clothes and hair brings to mind both horror film iconography and Kurosawa’s "The Idiot." The transitions to color are both fitting and eloquent, often lending a counterbalance of warmth and humanity to the cooler monochrome passages.
Through the entire film, Yeo keeps the characters and their emotions at the forefront of his priorities. As the two central women wander from car to woods to derelict building, there is always the weight of intangible things behind their actions and words – their past experiences together, their histories with Yosuke, the lingering presence of Yosuke himself. Yeo, who also served as the film’s editor, brings a keen understanding of composition, pacing and tone to the entire film, giving it the feel of a finely crafted poem about loss and memory – which, in fact, it is.
Thus far, the Malaysian-born, Japan-based Yeo has produced a truly impressive output of short films that demonstrate his remarkable skill with creative and experimental techniques and the seamless marriage of emotional themes with a highly cinematic sensibility. With "Exhalation," which makes its worldwide premiere this week at the Dubai International Film Festival, he reveals more layers of his considerable talent and further proves his worth as a fascinating, noteworthy filmmaker.