It is hard to find a Japanese translator in rural Bengali. The converse is not so easy in Japan either. Somehow two pen-pal-lovers are able to make do with English, their halting second language, in Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife (trailer here), one of the best received films of this year’s MIAAC Film Festival, which is already available on DVD.
Unassuming does not begin to describe Snehamoy Chatterjee. A school teacher in a remote West Bengal village, he makes a mere $100 a month. His only joys are the letters and packages he receives from Miyage, a pen pal he found through a magazine classified. Also quite shy, she recognizes a kindred soul in Chatterjee, but is anchored to Japan and the sick mother she cares for. Nevertheless, she proposes a marriage of the spirit, consummated by the post. For fifteen years, they remain faithful to each other, even as fate brings Sandhya, his aunt’s attractive god-daughter widowed at a tragically young age, to test his fidelity. While their idealized love might endure jealousy and temptation, there are more ominous clouds on the horizon.
Wife is an unabashed, heartstring-tugging tearjerker in the tradition of Il Postino. It might be manipulative as all get-out, but it works in spades. Dubbed a “love poem by Aperna Sen” in the trailer, there is indeed something poetically beautiful about their chaste love and the emotional support they lend each other across geographic and cultural boundaries. Frankly, it seems like its DVD release was premature, because if there was ever an international film tailored made for breakout American art-house success, it would be Wife.
Ironically, Rahul Bose and Chigusa Takaku really do not have the chance to develop chemistry as a couple, but they are both sweetly endearing as Chatterjee and his title wife, respectively. On-screen nearly the entire film, Bose finds the right balance, portraying the schoolteacher as oh-so mild-mannered and withdrawn, yet never to the point of freakishness. Though Takaku is an ethereal presence during most of the film, she is radiantly beautiful and emotionally devastating in her final scene.
Sen grounds viewers in the realities of West Bengal, where the idea of jetting off to Japan is as unrealistic as hitching a shuttle ride to the moon. The viscous mud oozes through her lens, yet ultimately her imagery of the traditional white sari mourning dress defines the tenor of the film.
Wife is international cinema for people who hate foreign films. It will make grown men bawl like babies. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of films like Departures, Wife is currently available at Netflix. It also scored a major hit last night at MIAAC, which continues tomorrow (11/14) at the SVA Theatre.