But meanwhile, I got to watch a truly fucked up work of art. Yes, it's expressed in ways that cinema can only do - through a sensual, tactile, almost 3D-in-2D sense of how to capture skin and light and that thing that Anakin Skywalker seems to not like too much SAND - but fucked up. Thank God for Japan.
First off, usually a character's profession should have some component of meaning for the film that he or she is a part of, no? Maybe we as the audience can get an indication of how what the task the protagonist performs may/can/does have a bearing on the story.
In Woman in the Dunes, Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) is an Entomologist. What is that? The study of bugs, insects, the like, and Niki is in a desert looking for some to bring back home for his studies (who we rarely hear if at all called this name, he's really just 'he' far as the audience is concerned). But he misses his bus back home - or at least that's what he's told by some locals - and they suggest to him, when asked by Niki, to spend the night at a woman's house. The house just happens to be at the bottom of a pit surrounded by sand. The night with this Woman being sometimes odd and eerie notwithstanding, Niki expects to leave come morning. That doesn't happen. He's trapped - it's a set-up, and it's just the beginning of his troubles.
|Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he's been transformed into an ART FILM!|
There are many ways to read into what this man does and how it relates to this story, but what makes the film so impactful and powerful is that it's not content to rest on the page, so to speak. The story itself can't help but be compelling - it's a tale of wrongful imprisonment as the man and woman, as many others we are told are in this situation among these dunes, have to work digging in the sand around these "houses" (more like ramshackle shacks that could break any moment) in order to sift through diamonds for these "villagers". On paper this could be a horror movie, a bunch of backwoods fucks kidnapping people for their own sadistic purposes. But the direction from Hiroshi Teshigahara is what makes it count - the way that he and DP use the camera to create a distinctive, suffocating world full of so many things that make it a CINEMATIC experience is nothing short of miraculous.
|"Sandy Cheesecake" pinup photography was always a tough sell in Japan...|
At times it's not unlike those opening minutes of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had ash as a similar conduit for skin and sex, as it adds another layer to the image and gives the filmmakers something to play with. There's also simply how many great images these guys get of these two people, how they find new ways to get close-ups even when it seems like there's no where else to photograph. And there comes a point where the man asks the villagers if he can have just a few minutes a day, maybe ten, or more, or less, to see the nearby sea (he won't run away, like he did before, which by the way that entire sequence is so goddamn intense, mostly done without words, that it's worthy of No Country for Old Men far as mounting and executing suspense in a chase).
When the villagers give their 'condition' it involves them all getting a "Show" at night... involving seeing the man and woman fuck as if in some carnal thing, like watching animals screw or trained monkeys in a circus. She refuses - it's an attempted rape, one might say conservatively - but the way it's all presented, how Teshigahara, his DP and editor, cut between and show these faces watching (some in Kabuki masks!) and then these two desperate, tired, hopeless people, it's ironically magical to watch despite (or because) it's all so terrible.
Woman in the Dunes is at many points, mostly speaking, profoundly disturbing. It goes deep in and tears apart the human soul in a way like Oldboy - also a movie about someone wrongfully imprisoned - though it's as well showing the 'institutionalized' way a mind can get ala Shawshank after some time (you know, first you hate it, then you get used to it, then it becomes like you have to rely on it). I thought of these as the only rational examples I could since the film is mostly unlike any other I can think of: it has the framing of a terror or horror movie, but it's shot in a way like the most beautiful art film imaginable.
Oh, and the two performances by Okada and Kishida are down and dirty and full of sometimes madness, often despair, and for Kishida it takes a lot to really make us feel sorry for a woman who has lost it and may be (maybe) a little slow, though her loss (she had a husband and daughter, likely they're dead) shines through in almost every scene, if that makes sense. She has nothing to do but dig and obey, and the man with her better get his head around that and out of his crazy ideas of getting out! These two have to be good performers to keep our attention, and they sure as hell do.
Lastly, there's the score. This comes in like out of some abstract other realm, or perhaps that the desert itself can make music and is sometimes giving a wild accompaniment to what happens here, whether it's certain ominous sensual moments, or when Niki finally gets his moment of (short-lived) escape and it's suspenseful music from Takemitsu while still maintaining the same eerie spectacle of everything. The music collaborates with this to be like, again going back to the Metamorphosis and Kafka, like a waking, unhinged nightmare where people are punished for reasons that have no reason.
Maybe that's how the insects feel anyway, if they have feelings.