Wednesday, June 29, 2016


I'm a day behind, I know.  That may happen from time to time.  Life and all.

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!
So what does this mean?  Well, at the least, he is smart, and at times can be clever and his mind is always trying to think of things that can possibly get him out of the hole he's stuck in.  But could it be something deeper, more existential?  A bug or an insect, like the ones that Niki collects and studies, have no real scope in life, no goals, except survival, getting by day to day.  And in Niki's possession these insects are trapped forever (some die, some are meant to be kept alive for a short while).  Has he been turned into one of these insects?  May he become one with the limited capacity for no thought except the tasks given him?  Perhaps Niki will awake one morning to discover he's been transformed into a literal giant cockroach.  But at least Gregor Samsa was turned into a literal creature - this man's humanity is stripped day by day, in a prison that the woman by his side (Kyôko Kishida in a performance for the ages), and has come to accept with a combination of insane glee and reticence.  A nickname for this could be Slow-Burn Metamorphosis in the Castles Made of Sand.

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...
Sand is tricky in movies - it doesn't have much character, unlike waves which ripple and move, or trees which go about and have color and have height and length and varieties.  Sand is just sand, sometimes wet, sometimes drier, sometimes even quicksand (and at one pivotal point we see quicksand in action in WitD).  Teshigahara and Hiroshu Segawa photograph sand unlike any I can think of in movies, not even Lawrence of Arabia.  Some of it has to do with juxtaposition - having an image of dunes and then having an elliptical, oblique image of a woman's face over it early on is such a way - but also getting what sand feels like on a person's skin, when it sticks to sweat and can't be easily rubbed off.  There's even a sensual quality to it in Teshigahara's hands, as at one point when the man is rubbing the sand off of the woman slowly, and it becomes... I mean, Jesus, one of the more sensual scenes in all movie history, and without nudity (in this case, there is some mild nudity though done tastefully).

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.

We see this man lose his grip on reality, though the reality is already being stripped away from him, as we are seeing in a subjective, lovingly photographed way these people like they have no other position to be in but drenched in sweat and misery and the occasional sex and dirt.  It's a precise contradiction, of making the horrific and emptiness of a desert into something gorgeous, and that's the fascination of the film, or at least of the director with this script (which, by the way, Teshigahara somehow got an Oscar nomination for *direction* at the 66 Oscars, and more power to him!)

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. 

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