Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kore-eda's Still Walking

Family is family, even when parents break the unwritten rule prohibiting unequal affection for their children. Of course, that kind of favoritism can lead to deep psychological repercussions throughout the family unit. Such is unfortunate case with Dr. Yokoyama, his wife, and the entire Yokoyama family in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Fifteen years ago, Junpei, the eldest son and focus of all the Yokoyama parental pride, died in a senseless accident. Though the Yokoyamas still had two perfectly good grown children, younger brother Ryota and older sister Chinami, neither is able to fill Junpei’s place in their hearts. As a result, Ryota usually avoids family visits, but he cannot beg off his mother’s annual memorial for his late brother on the anniversary of his death.

Outside factors further complicate the Ryota’s awkward homecoming. His parents are at best ambivalent about his marriage to Yukari, an understanding widow with a young son. Ryota also recently lost his job as a museum art-restorer, which he is determined to keep secret, even though he must frequently excuse himself to make networking calls on his cell-phone. At the same time, Ryota’s distant father silently grapples with feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy brought on by advanced age, while Dr. Yokoyama’s wife deliberately nurses all her resentments and disappointments, acerbically giving voice to them as she cooks with Chinami.

While this might sound like a thoroughly unhealthy family get-together, they are still a family, dysfunctional though they might be. In Kore-eda’s emotionally realistic screenplay, characters never really “have it out.” They just carry on as best they can.

Walking is a film of great subtlety that builds slowly but steadily, thanks to the steady hand of the acclaimed writer-director-editor. Its wistful spirit is nicely underscored by the soundtrack music of GONTITI, the Japanese acoustic guitar duo who blend light jazz and polite world music influences into a mix well suited to the intimate simplicity of Kore-eda’s approach.

Throughout Walking, the Yokoyamas seem like a credible real-life middleclass family, thanks to the utterly natural and perfectly complimentary ensemble performances. Abe Hirosi’s quietly understated portrayal of Ryota holds the audience’s sympathy and delivers the film’s restrained but moving dramatic payoff. Surprisingly, former Japanese pop-star and professional celebrity YOU is also quite convincing as the dutiful daughter. Perhaps most crucial though, is the work of veteran Japanese actor Harada Yoshio, who deftly suggests the inner fears of the once powerful doctor, now forced to watch his vitality slip away.

Though Kore-eda has a global reputation, there is the risk Walking might be overshadowed on the art-house circuit by other Japanese family dramas recently released in America. While it lacks the visceral intensity of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata or the overwhelming punch of Yojiro Takita’s Departures, it is a very honest and direct film, whose elegiac conclusion has an undeniable power that lingers in the consciousness long after its initial viewing. It opens this Friday (8/28) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center.