Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ISFF ’09: The Clone Returns Home

If a human body is cloned, is a human soul cloned along with it? It is a heady question, but it is only the first of many posed by writer-director Kanji Nakajima’s thought-provoking debut feature. Though he most certainly addresses the more worldly ethical dilemmas involved in human cloning, The Clone Returns Home (trailer here), embraces wider metaphysical speculation, making it a surprisingly philosophical selection for the second annual Imagine Science Film Festival. Yet, it is particularly appropriate for a fest created to challenge how audiences think about science and art.

In a sense, Clone is an exercise in magical realism as much as it is science fiction. However, the trappings are definitely sf. As the film opens, the Japanese space program has suffered a tragedy during a politically precarious period for the agency administrators. To prevent further loss of prestige, they have developed a unique form of “life insurance.” Willing astronauts will have their DNA recorded and their memories downloaded, so if they should die during the course of a mission, their clone will carry on in their stead.

Obviously, this is a problematic offer, but Kohei Takahara has reasons for agreeing. The astronaut still blames himself for the childhood incident that killed his twin brother Noboru. However, he promised his ailing mother he would not let her outlive him as well.

Given the title, it hardly comes as a shock when indeed it becomes necessary to clone Takahara. The notion of cloning a twin would be presented as a sufficiently rich irony in most genre pictures, but Nakajima takes it to far deeper levels. As his story unfolds, signals from the past intrude in the present, and history mournfully repeats itself. It is not just the “resonance” of Takahara’s past consciousness affecting later incarnations. It seems perhaps time is in flux.

As intellectual as Clone might be, it is also a film of genuine emotional depth. The persistent yearning of successive Takaharas to unite with his twin is ultimately quite moving. However, scenes of his wife Tokie struggling with her pure grief and the manipulative agency bureaucrats are truly devastating, thanks to a perfectly pitched supporting turn from Hiromi Nagasaku. Yet it is Mitsuhiro Oikawa who truly sets the tenor of Clone, evoking the pain of a restless soul, while still keeping the true essences of his psyches obscure.

As lensed by cinematographer Hideho Urata, Clone has a distinctly unusual look for the genre. With Nakajima, he gives the film a haunting visual style well suited to its surreal environment of cold, austere interiors and muddy, washed-out exteriors. It is worth noting German director Wim Wenders served as executive producer on Clone, and one can see a certain stylistic kinship between the two very deliberate directors.

Clone is an outstanding film, highly rewarding on multiple levels. It should have a long life as a work to be repeatedly discussed, debated, studied, and revived for many years to come. Though a bit of a departure, it was an excellent programming choice for the ISFF. The festival continues through Friday (10/23), with more conventionally science-based documentary features and short films.