Friday, October 17, 2008

REVIEW: A Woman Who is Beating the Earth - Tsuki Inoue (2007)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

I think one of the best things about the recent 6th Annual Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival was how many women were represented in its roster of filmmakers, 6 out of 25 to be precise. I guess there could have always been more though. Not to say that the shortage of successful female directors is just a problem unique to the Japanese film industry because it certainly isn't, it seems to be a real boys club worldwide, but I do think its especially hard for women in Japan. Directors like Mika Ninagawa and Naomi Kawase have probably been the most successful Japanese filmmakers to buck the male dominated system, but if I had to choose another woman to join their ranks it would have to be Tsuki Inoue. I was lucky enough to catch her 21-minute short "A Woman Who is Beating the Earth" at this year's TJSFF and I was utterly and totally impressed, enough so that I felt it deserved its own review outside of the rest of my festival coverage.

Chiharu works in a small delicatessen with a group of other women who prepare the meats for sale, from stuffing sausages to frying up cutlets they toil away anonymously in the deli's back room. Chiharu's job in all this is to pound pork cutlets, tenderizing them and flattening them so they can be breaded to make tonkatsu. Short, stout and strongly built she seems uniquely suited to her job, in fact she spends her off hours keeping her strength up by practicing martial arts; at least that's how she explains the painful-looking bruises that she regularly has on her face. Chiharu's co-workers know better though. They all know Akira, Chiharu's no good boyfriend and they know that he's capable of more than chain smoking, cheating, and shouting abuse at poor Chiharu.

To say that "A Woman Who is Beating the Earth" takes on heavy-hitting subject matter would be a very bad pun. Lord knows women have suffered greatly in Japanese films, you only have to watch classic yakuza or pinku eiga to see what I mean, but Inoue cuts away all the genre trappings and comes at the ugly subject of domestic violence head on. Don't be fooled and think that this is a preachy message film though. While she never shies away from the uncomfortable truth of the subject matter Inoue takes Chiharu's life, her abuse at the hands of Akira, her mind-numbing job, her dreams and her fears and combines them into a compelling, sometimes funny and in the end empowering portrait of one woman's personal struggles.

Now, it won't be lost on anybody the parallel that Inoue is drawing between Chiharu's job of pounding raw meat and the vicious treatment she receives from Akira, in fact after a particularly cruel beating that takes place in by the side of a road Chiharu, bloodied and bruised asks Akira what she is to him. "You're just meat," he snorts as he lights yet another cigarette. But it's all the other visual and auditory devices that Inoue uses to advance the story that really sets this film apart. Chiharu doesn't just get lost in revenge fantasies as she spends her days in the repeated and sometimes cathartic pounding of these cuts of raw meat, her daydreams come to the fore as well as she watches a melodramatic dialogue of a soap opera or listens to the latest pop music idols on the TV playing in the corner of the shop. It's this latter example that provides the antithesis to Chiharu's fear and confusion as she imagines that she and her co-workers are members of rock band with Chiharu the all powerful drummer sitting behind her kit, keeping the back beat strong and in the end unleashing earthquakes that shake the foundations of the world.

"A Woman Who is Beating the Earth" is true cinematic storytelling. It never relies on tired voice over or obvious expository dialogue to get its point across. It's only tools are memorable images, imaginative sound design and powerful performances. Using these director Tsuki Inoue has created what will hopefully be the first of many fantastic works in long filmography.

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