Sunday, July 3, 2011

REVIEW: Birthright

臍帯 (Saitai)

Released: 2011

Naoki Hashimoto

Sayoko Oho
Miyu Yagyu
Ryoko Takizawa
Miho Fujima
Ako Masuki

Running time: 108 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Teenager Mika has camped out under a tree to watch. Who she is watching are a typical family - a mother,father and teen daughter, just a little younger than Mika. Through sun and rain Mika stands grimly at the edge of the families property, eyes fixated on the happy scenes playing out behind the glass sliding doors at the rear of the house. This goes on for days and miraculously Mika goes unnoticed, that is until the mother, Naoko, notices this sullen girl skulking in the bushes. Their eyes lock for a second -- Mika's stern and challenging, Naoko's confused and flickering with just a hint of recognition -- and them Mika ends her vigil. This isn't the end of the story though. It is just the beginning of long-time producer and first time feature film-maker Naoki Hashimoto's "Birthright", an absolutely unadorned and harrowing journey of revenge and misdirected love.

Shortly after she leaves her post behind Naoko's home Mika intercepts her daughter Ayano. Using a ruse that she is a fellow student at her school the two girls walk off together. It's a terrible mistake on Ayano's part. She is drugged and taken by Mika to a dim, featureless warehouse where she proceeds to starve Ayano. Hours upon hours pass and Naoko and her husband begin to worry. The question "Where is our daughter?" tears them apart, and meanwhile we in the audience ask ourselves "Why is Mika doing this?" With no music or dialogue for nearly its first half hour "Birthright" takes its time building the tensions and planting questions in our mind. It's the classic formula or a great mystery thriller -- keep people's attention glued to the screen as they, along with the characters, both riddle out the motivations of the antagonist and try to get one step ahead of their evil plan. Director Hashimoto has other plans for us though.

When I think of a great kidnapping thriller I always think of Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low". It's in my opinion one of the best thrillers in cinema history. Its story of a businessman who must navigate moral and ethical issues to secure the release of the son of his house servant is not only an utterly absorbing police procedural, but it also, like so many of Kurosawa's films, plumbs the depths of the criminal mind, exposing its engine of anger, isolation and hurt. Like Kurosawa, Naoki Hashimoto, who has previously produced such Japanese art house films as Jun Ichikawa's "Tony Takitani" and Yosuke Nakagawa's "Cobalt Blue",takes us on a tour of the criminal mind with "Birthright"; but unlike "High and Low" there is no urgent police investigation, no extended debates about the right course of action by its characters. Instead Hashimoto pares everything down -- music, dialogue, camera set-ups -- in order to make us watch Mika slowly dismantle a family.

So pared down is "Birthright" though that the film goes from being a thrilling, dark entertainment to being an endurance test of cruelty. Hashimoto gives us a huge hint as to Mika's motivations with the film's Japanese title,"Saitai" or "Umbilical Cord"; and we soon learn -- SPOILERS AHEAD -- that Mika is Naoko's first daughter, abandoned at birth so the young mother could win over the affections of her future husband, and the future father of Ayano. With Mika's motivation finally made clear Hashimoto has her deprive her half sister of food and water. Mika does the same, as if she plans to see which child will be strong enough to survive. With the camera unblinkingly capturing static shots of pain and slow suffering there were times I questioned Hashimoto's own motivations and skills as a film-maker. It was then, as I watched Ayano's life slowly leave her, that I realized what I was watching.

"I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other." At no point in "Birthright" dopes Mika utter these words; in fact there is no line of dialogue more than a half dozen lines strung together in the entire film. No, these words come from Mary Shelley's classic work of gothic horror "Frankenstein", and it was these words of Frankenstein's Monster that clarified the cruelty that witnessed on screen. In many ways this a modern re-telling of Shelley's novel, the tale of an abandoned child who seeks revenge on and reconciliation with their creator. Mika's mission to destroy her half sibling is only the means to an end. That end is to not only deliver a hateful blow to her creator, her mother Naoko, but also a way to clear this second-run object of affection from Naoko's life so that Mika can claim her rightful place as the loving and beloved daughter. "Birthright" is closer to the film's of Michael Hankeke in this regard -- laying bare the darkest possibilities of humanity and, by sitting helplessly in a movie theatre, make us complicit in the depravity on display.

The English-language poster for "Birthright" states "The shocking ending of shocking endings awaits you...," but this oversells the film as the kind of kidnapping thriller most audiences expect to see. It's a mistake to have done this because the people who make it through the entire 108 minutes of "Birthright" will wish they have rented a film like "High and Low" instead. The best strategy for watching "Birthright" is to head out and rent Michael Haneke's "Caché"to get in the right head space for a foray into the cinematic dark side.


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