Friday, August 28, 2009

(Don't) Walk This Way

by James Hansen

As any avid moviegoer recognizes, it can be frustrating when you sit down for a movie and within ten or fifteen minutes know exactly where its going, what it will do, and the point its going to make. Of course, along the way, things can be subverted and toyed with, which is why genre “weaknesses” and three act script structure alone are never the only vices of a movie, and the movie can give itself some kind of life. Just because you hear Japanese Family Drama shouldn’t mean the movie is a moot point. Unfortunately, this is the case with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s (After Life, Distance, Nobody Knows) new film Still Walking – a film that does plenty of things well, but never comes close to overcoming its transparency and, insodoing, becomes a bore.

Still Walking revolves around the Yokoyama family. Ryota, a recently unemployed art restorer, has recently married a widow, Yukari, who has a ten-year old son. They are making a rare trip home to visit Ryota’s aging parents on the fifteenth anniversary of his eldest brother’s death. Uncomfortable around his father, a retired, very respected local doctor, Ryota is searching for his place in both families, as both a son, husband, and parent.

From the onset, and to its favor, Still Walking’s low-key, classic style addresses its modest expectations, and shows, as Kore-eda says in his director’s statement for the film, that “there are no typhoons in this film.” Taking this subtle approach, Still Walking is playing in the simple, tender territory that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s uneven Tokyo Sonata powerfully ends on. The hushed, nuanced emotion is played well by each of the actors and actresses. Trouble is, the “subtle” formalism is made significantly less so by the directness with which it deals with issues, such as generational difference (cue the edits from old hands preparing foods to younger people on trains playing on Iphones and handheld video games; line up the hospital coming in to overtake the local doctor struggling to still do his job).

This is one of many instances where the somber attitude is made loud by these instantly recognizable tropes. Moreover, Still Walking ends with a terribly unnecessary, self-defeating coda, announced by the first bit of voice over in the entire film. This divulgence highlights the attempted subtlety of the rest of the film, but also forces one to question where such an overwrought decision came from. All though this misstep may seem from out of nowhere, the small missteps are planted throughout the film which makes the bigger misfire at the end all the more unsurprising. Coming after what was the predictable, if more satisfying, should-be ending of the three generations taking “the walk” together, the actual ending puts the heavy-handed stamp of disapproval all over the rest of the film.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on another near-end-of-life life-affirming film, as some have suggested I have been on a rhetorically similar film yet to be officially released. While Still Walking is still leagues above that film, its so see through everything in it just felt perfunctory. Although it does feature some strong performances, Kore-eda is treading familiar ground for the viewers and himself. Even though this film may be more deeply personal for him (both his parents have passed away in the last few years), there is nothing here cinematically that translates those feelings anyway differently than we’ve seen or felt more strongly before. As life goes on, we all have to keep moving in whichever way life leads us. Check, please.



Bob Turnbull said...

That's a shame you didn't like it James...I saw it at TIFF last year and simply loved it. Granted, I was already a fan of Kore-eda's and his wonderful comments in the Q&A afterwards (about recounting family stories with his parents as they lived out the last year of their lives) probably biased me, but I thought it handled all the small things so very well so that just about anyone with a family could relate to it. I reviewed it here.

To be honest, I can't quite remember the voice over ending - I guess I had already been caught up in the journey towards it that it didn't really matter...

James Hansen said...

Yeah, I remember it being quite well reviewed, as it has been thus far. I just didn't see anything to get worked up about. I've read some interviews with him and they sound lovely...I wish I felt like it translated a little more. I feel a little bad for not liking an ode to someone's dead parents more...makes me feel kind of an ass, which is why I had difficulty writing this. I just didn't respond to it the same way I have to other (Japanese) family dramas. Glad you liked it. I certainly don't think its bad...just sort of bland.

Bob Turnbull said...

Bah, you can't feel bad for not liking something - no matter what the context for its creation.

I am hoping that this release means a DVD in the not too distant future.

Drew McIntosh said...

Enjoyable and interesting review. While Still Walking remains unseen by me, your first line in particular stuck out to me:

"As any avid moviegoer recognizes, it can be frustrating when you sit down for a movie and within ten or fifteen minutes know exactly where its going, what it will do, and the point its going to make."

It stuck out because currently my only exposure to Hirokazu's work has been the sublimely poignant "After Life", of which that statement could not have been any furthur away from my experience with that delightfully unpredictable work. So it's a bit unfortunate to learn that those qualities aren't a constant throughout his stuff. Nevertheless thanks for the fine review you've posted here.

James I just recently started my own film journal blog:, and am pretty new to all of this stuff, but your blog was one I was immediately drawn to being something of a Rivette fanatic myself (as you can see he occupies quite a few places on my top25 list). Anyway keep up the great work, really enjoying it.

Chuck W said...

Damn, James. I really, really hope you're wrong on this one. I'm a huge Kore-eda fan; hell, I was even planning a small double-screening of Nobody Knows and After Life in preparation for the film's eventual theatrical release. And I'll admit, some of the reviews that euphemistically described the film as Kore-eda's attempt to graft his typically glacial style with a more commercial, sentimental sensibility concerned me... but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm still holding out hope, but am preparing myself for the worst.

Here's a question--how does this film stack up to some of his earlier work?

James Hansen said...

Chuck- I've actually only seen parts of NOBODY KNOWS (which I liked a lot), so I can't really speak further than that. Maybe its the slew of family movies that have come out in the past couple years that are making them all seem weaker. But the ones that stand out (Summer Hours, parts of A Christmas Tale, part of Tokyo Sonata) do so because they are doing something different. This is just straight shootin' the whole way through. Nothing wrong with that, I don't guess, but it just didn't do anything for me. I hope you like it though! Its getting solid reviews from almost everyone...apparently I'm a grouch. :-)

James Hansen said...

That said, please let me know what you think once you see it. In the Twitter-verse, the people who like/love Kore-eda seem to like this as well. Maybe he's just not my cup of tea. I do really want to see AFTER LIFE though.