Sunday, May 15, 2011

REVIEW: The Duckling

アヒルの子 (Ahiru no ko)

Released: 2005/ 2010

Director: Sayaka Ono

Sayaka Ono

Running time: 92 mins.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

20-year-old Sayaka Ono is a truly troubled young woman. At an age when most Japanese girls are dating, forging friendships and gussying up for their coming of age ceremony Sayako is staring down the long dark tunnel of death. She is convinced that she is utterly alone and the only solution to her pain is suicide. It's a sad fact that there are a number of young people in their late teens and early 20's who feel this way. It's very hard to gain perspective on a painful existence with only a couple of decades behind you; but few young people have a life as conflicted and as painful as Sayako does. Thankfully, before Sayako makes the final decision as to whether to take her life or not she embarks on a mission to confront the people who she feels are responsible for isolation and grief: her family. The end result is far from being the kind of "blame your parents" pop psychology that we're used to seeing on TV talk shows. Instead Sayako Ono's documentary feature debut, "The Duckling", can lay claim to being one of the most affecting films to be released in recent memory.

Most families are a delicate balancing act of diverse personalities. Sayako feels that in the case of her family she has played the role of peacekeeper, the lukewarm that eases the hot and cold emotions of her parents and siblings. While her elder sister has, as Sayako explains, "done whatever she wanted to" by getting mixed up in gangs and petty crime Sayako has been left to moderate between her taciturn father, the owner of a small company, her mother, who belongs to self-help religion, and her two brothers, the youngest Sayako's constant ally, while she has grown to despise her older brother. Tears flow almost constantly from the beginning of Sayako's story, and at first we wonder if "The Duckling" isn't just a case of a spoiled film student who has fallen in love with filming her tear-streaked face. Once we get past the weeping, or more specifically to its root cause, we begin to understand why Sayako wishes nothing more than to "ruin the family".

Stupid, ugly, smelly, useless -- these are the adjectives that clang in Sayako's mind when she thinks of herself, but its frightening combination of injustices inflicted by her family that planted these demon words inside her. First we learn that at the age of five Sayako was sent away by her parents to a communal Yamagishi farm/ kindergarten in Toyosato, Mie Prefecture. Here the children were to be taught cooperation, love of nature and true friendship, but instead the kindergarten "mothers" would routinely belittle and beat the children. Five-year-old Sayako felt she had been abandoned by her parents and the only memories she has of that year was crying herself to sleep. Upon her return home Sayako felt the crushing pressure to be a good girl so that her mother and father would not abandon her again. This desire to be good, not to make waves and always remain dutiful proved to be a curse when Sayako's eldest brother sexually abused her when she was just in the fourth grade. These events left Sayako so afraid and so damaged that she ended up seeking solace from her second brother. The only way she could process his kindness for her was to fall in love with him, an incestuous love that Sayako's brother had been unaware that his sister harboured for him.

It's this maelstrom of that Sayako brings to her graduating project for the Yokohama School of Film and Broadcasting, and the result is blood-red raw and unapologetic. One after the other Sayako ambushes her family members with a camera, pulling the scabs off events that have been forgotten or suppressed. These moments are gut-wrenching to witness. A degree of understanding and love results from each meeting, but not before Sayako, her family and we are rocked to the core. The moments when Sayako confesses her love and longing for her brother is both beautiful and abhorent, while a confrontation between Sayako and her parents that results in her pulling a pair of scissors from her pocket (only to be wrestled out of her hands by her father) is just as, or maybe even more frightening, than anythign you'll see in a horror movie .

The audience that I watched "The Duckling" with at Nippon Connection in Frankfurt Germany were totally stunned by the power of Ono's film. Still there were a few who later questioned the veracity of some of the footage. Yes, it is true that while Sayako repeatedly mentions that a single film school colleague is shooting the meetings with her family we in the audience clearly see that the footage has been edited togetehr from multiple camera set-ups. How many people were in the room? Were Sayako's family members really unaware of what was occurring? I believe that the latter is true, that Sayako's family were not aware of what was going to be asked of them, but as for the former argument that the film was somehow fictionalized or tweaked by using multiple cameras, I think this is irrelavent.

It's interesting to note that none other than documentarian Kazuo Hara was Ono's supervising instructor on "The Duckling". This is the same man who brought us such groundbreaking films as "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On" and "Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974". Both of these utilized the occasional elaborate camera set-up. Both juxtaposed semi-scripted scenes with raw documentary footage. In the case of "Emperor's Naked Army" we see the film's subject Kenzo Okuzaki convoince his wife to play the widow of an executed soldier in order to trick information out of his former superior officers. Hardly objective film-making. Hara was in fact gifted with the story of Kenzo Okuzaki from Hara's mentor (and Yokohama School of Film and Broadcasting founder) Shohei Imamura. Imamura had wanted to turn Okuzaki's crusade for truth and reconciliation amongst Japanese WW2 veterans into a documentary along the lines of his "A Man Vanishes". This film famously played with our perceptions of what was fact and what was fiction, but it's power and place in the canon of documentary film-making is rock solid for this every reason.

I think it's the scorching emotional power of Sayako Ono's film that makes it an important. Whether or not there were one, two or a dozen cameramen in a room doesn 't change the fact that fact. It also doesn't change the fact that through Sayako's confrontations with her family, and subsequent interviews with other young women who lived at the Yamagishi kindergarten, that she attains some sense of healing and closure. She learns the important lesson that that she is not all alone, that pain and hopelessness visits all of us (and abuse wounds far too many). While I was still quite concerned that the issues surrounding Sayako's love for her brother had not been resolved I found myself leaving the theatre brimming with feelings: relief, empathy and great admiration for Sayako Ono. She has done what so few film-makers even attempt to do -- to explore their own personal pain and through film make the personal universal. It's very difficult to pull off, but Ono has done it, and by making her story universal "The Duckling" will hopefully help other young women struggling with abuse and depression.

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