Saturday, September 13, 2008
Hiroshi Ando is a relative unknown, having had only one of his four feature films to date breach the Japanese border, and only in a small circuit of festivals. This is an unfortunate circumstance, because the evidence of his latest work, "Boku wa Imouto ni koi wo suru" (My Sister, My love), suggests a burgeoning and sensitive talent that is being overlooked. Or, having personally only seen this newest film, perhaps he has just entered a new stride.
MY SISTER, MY LOVE is both subtle and direct in all of it's capacities, relying on the clarity of the most moderate displays of emotion, the most ginger movement of the camera, and the most delicate probing of a controversial issue; that of highschool age fraternal twin siblings, Iku and Yori, who are in love with one another, and have been so (internally) all there lives. Iku and Yori are inseparable in the sense that they are together in mind always. They also happen to sleep in the same room together, walk to and from school with one another, eat side by side at dinner and breakfast, etc. A perfect example of Ando's subtle command over convincing us of the twins' connection is in his early focusing on their hands; once when the childhood Yori is tying a small flower stem into a ring, and then shortly after in a close up of Iku's teenage hand as she leans on a window sill, pondering Yori's seeming coldness to her. All things considered, Iku and Yori's bond isn't claustrophobic. They have their moments apart, certainly, but are always thinking of the other. They are best friends with a quiet understanding of one another and a quiet way of being with one another...a quietude, beneath which resides deep emotions. The opening scene depicts Yori (the boy) offering Iku (the girl) a ring he made from a small flower as they sit alone together in a vibrant green field. While they unabashedly smile to one another, Yori says with a child’s conviction, “Iku is my bride,” leaving no ambiguity about their irregular closeness. Though the twins had made such an innocent but honest declaration of love in their youth, it isn’t until their coming of age that they acquiesce to its true breadth. Despite saccharine overtones and a lilting guitar melody in the opening "proposal" scene, there is something innately impending and unfortunate at the core of it.
Writer / director Hiroshi Ando doesn't take any easy roads with this film, allowing himself no obvious gratuities concerning sexuality or youth, either in content or methodology. Scenes unfold in long effortless takes (ranging from 10 seconds to 3 min), with a camera that alternates between a rather steady handheld dynamic, to fixed shots, to almost imperceptible glides that slowly encroach on characters. That “glide” becomes a presence within the film, a vehicle for Ando’s soft (but not underdone) handling of confused emotions, as well as a reciprocation of the metered performances within each scene. The subsequent effect is a sense of the air, a patient and full awareness of each moment, no matter its banality, and a saturation in the ponderance of every word, no matter its seeming innocuity (most of what the characters say has resonance and importance, it’s just a matter of the words coming out slowly and in their simplest terms). Suffice it to say, if a scene is better served by silence and a glance, or by the most average exchange of words, Ando won’t hesitate to leave it stripped bare, and rightfully so. Nothing is forced in MY SISTER, MY LOVE.
Matsumoto Jun (most notable as a member of the J-Pop band ARASHI, and the childish, arrogant, polarized male lead, Tsukasa Domiyouji, in the hit J-Drama HANA YORI DANGO 1&2) delivers an uncharacteristically understated and solemn performance as Yori…a performance that is allowed to unfold because of the blank slate of long takes and subtle camera movements aforementioned; a case of form fitting function. Therefore, moderately-expressed but urgently-felt emotions, as well as simple but tumultuous self-questioning propel the film, not artificially / analytically heightened tensions, nor, as one might expect of the content in relation to Japanese societal conventions, by pure didactics.
For a non-Japanese viewer it is unapparent that names carry great bearing in MY SISTER MY LOVE, and, for those adept to their meanings, suggest certain things about the twins before we even get to know them. The name ‘Iku,’ for instance, means “to go, to continue.” It can mean “fear, reverence, or awe,” and in colloquial language it means “to come” or “to orgasm.” Considering these many meanings, it becomes clear that the name Iku is perfectly chosen to embody her characters emotional awe for Yori, and is a subtle way of injecting sexuality into a very chaste film. ‘Yori’ means “other than,” “more than,” “out of.” In the vain of preference, it can take the form of “over;” such as the saying ‘Hana yori dango’ (dumplings over flowers…meaning necessity over materiality). But Yori can also mean “having a tendency towards; being close to…” The multiple definitions of this name are likewise evidence of its deliberate choosing. If you combine the twins names, though non-sensical in Japanese, it becomes something like, “other than to go,” which could be molded to mean an unwillingness to leave, an alternative to fatalism or finality, as in the way that the twins never want to be apart from one another, even if they can’t love each other to the extent that they feel. “I never want to be apart from you” Yori says. (dictionary sources; http://www.freedict.com/onldict/onldict.php - http://jisho.org/words?jap=yori&eng=&dict=edict - http://jisho.org/words?jap=iku&eng=&dict=edict)
For comparison's sake, I would liken "MY SISTER, MY LOVE" to two films; firstly Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS (2003) for its specific content concerning twins, Isa and Theo, who are also in love. But note however that THE DREAMERS is inverse to MY SISTER MY LOVE in its use of graphic sexuality and persistent sensuality (though executed aptly and artfully by Bertolucci).
The character of Matthew in THE DREAMERS, the new friend that Theo and Isa invite into their peculiar tight orbit, is like Yori in that he has an insider’s view that is also detached and objective. Isa and Theo’s father responds to something that Matthew says at the dinner concerning objectivity. He says, “We look around us and what do we see?...Complete chaos. But, when viewed from above, viewed as it were, by god, everything fits together.” He unknowingly but accurately implies of Matthew that his role will be that of an observer, an haphazard undercover agent that lives with the twins over the next month of their parents’ absence.
Ando infers something similar upon Yori within MY SISTER MY LOVE’s visual language. Not only does Yori have the top bunk bed at home, but at school Yori often hangs out on the roof, and in a specific scene he gazes down upon Iku from an open second-story window (note an OPEN window, not through glass) as she leaves the schoolyard with her friends. Ando suggests that between Yori an Iku, Yori has the greater clarity of vision. He sees farther down the track of their uncommon union after it is brought to the fore, and perceives a dark cloud that vexes him openly. But perhaps the most obvious suggestion comes from Iku herself at the beginning of the film, when her and Yori, clad in their gym uniforms, are in the school nurse’s room. Iku says to the nurse, who is mending her and Yori’s identical schoolyard scrapes, “when mother was pregnant she lied on her side to sleep, so all the brains slid down to Yori.” And after that, Iku says even more explicitly to herslef, "Between Yori and me, he is the capable one." So, when Yori begins to build a distance between he and his sister, even though he is the one who initiated the opening of the emotional floodgate, it is because he understands the inevitability of disaster. He doesn’t reach this conclusion all on his own though. Tomoka (a girl who is infatuated with Yori and who caught him and his sister kissing) plants the seed of fear within him, using her knowledge as an implied, but not explicit leverage against him.
THE DREAMERS and MY SISTER, MY LOVE also relate in the way that close council to the twins in each story try to show them the "error" of their ways. For Isa and Theo, it is Matthew who has their best interests at heart. “You won’t grow like this. Not if you keep clinging to each other the way that you do” he tells them, among many other purely intentioned, subtle and/or direct pleas towards sensibility. “Why, why are you so cruel?” Isa replies to Matthew, afraid to see his truth. For Iku and Yori it is Tomoka, a meddlesome self-interested party that tries to lure Yori out of his kindred coupling via fear peddling. But the character of Yano is the other half of this binary role of council. Yano is Yori’s best friend who is unfaulteringly honest in both his feelings for Iku, and his eventual effacing of those feelings, though pure of heart, for Yori’s sake, as revealed in two key conversations between them. "You still like Iku?" Yori asks. "I like her." Yano replies without batting an eye. "Are you thinking of stealing her away from me?" "Thinking about it...do you want me to?" Yano asks back, understanding Yori's guilt and hesitation. And a later conversation reveals his true bond with Yori, something we have sensed all along in Yano's actions and tones: Yano says, "If you waver you're done for. Don't lie about your own feelings. Using one girl to forget another is useless. Isn't it right to tell the one you like 'I like you'...even if it is your sister?" Similarly to Matthew, Tomoka says to Yori as she holds him back from chasing after a distressed Iku, “If you go after her now, things will never change.” This is true, but her motivations are pretense to her fixation. “You are so cruel” Iku says to Yori before she runs, having just found out that Yori accepted Tomoka as his girlfriend (even though he made it clear Tomoka that he doesn’t love her and that their relationship is a pathetic front). “If we keep this up, you will only get hurt” Yori says to Iku. But obviously, the hurt has already been had, and it has come from Yori himself. Or as Yano says, "It cant be helped... BECAUSE you like her." Iku is justifiably broken and, like Isa, is not prepared to face the truth in her loves’ gesture.
Subsequently, one cant help but feel the same sting when in THE DREAMERS Isa pleads to Theo, “It will always be you and me, right?” And likewise in MY SISTER, MY LOVE, Iku says to Yori, “I...can only love you, Iku.”
The second film I drew upon when watching MY SISTER, MY LOVE was Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005). The manner in which these two sets of characters, (Jack Twist and Ennis Delmar equating Iku and Yori) who are interminably drawn to one another, allow the fear of that love's "wrongness" and the assumption of grave consequence to unravel it. Pain comes from within their binary orbits, not necessarily from without. Ennis and Yori emulate one another because they share in their consuming fear of reprimand (better describes as a complacency in fear tinged with genuine concern). Hiding away in an empty dark classroom Iku asks “why can’t we hold hands in front of other people? I really don't like that. What about you?” “For me, it's ok to remain like this, if it means we can be together," Yori responds. Ennis does the same thing to Jack, by relegating their love to camping retreats on Brokeback Mountain, and rejecting Jack’s open pleas for them to move somewhere, get a cattle farm together…to live and work together. Ennis always has an excuse,, but you can see the confliction and insecurity that riddles him.“This thing gets a hold of us in the wrong place, at the wrong time…” Alternately, Jack and Iku are full and at the mercy of their love, wanting nothing besides, despite it’s flaunting of convention.
The scene in which Yori admits his love to Iku , which occurs early in the first act, is strongly akin to first love scene between Jack and Ennis, but with a complete inversion of pacing. The pitch in the explosive scene from BOKEBACK MOUNTAIN undulates masterfully, offering a confusion of push and pull and the unprepared shattering of an invisible tension as Ennis, startled from sleep by an unconscious advance by Jack, half wrestle themselves into making love. In MY SISTER, MY LOVE, that same pitch, in that same kind of moment, is drawn out and slowed to a whisper. The push and pull is the same, but it’s the difference between a hammer swing and a pin-drop, both working perfectly in their respective contexts. Yori sits down next to a warmly lit slumbering Iku, holds her hand and gently kisses it, and then hovers his face above hers, awakening her as their lips almost touch. Even after she awakes, Yori holds in his hover, and the two look straightly at one another without a wisp of air between them. Yori admits his feelings to her slowly, and his inability to restrain them any longer. He gives her an ultimatim; “Decide now. Be with me or with other guys. If you want to be with me, you will show me with a kiss. I've lied to myself, ever since I was a child. I don't want to let go anymore." "So mean...you putting this all on me. So mean...that you decided this all by yourself" she softly accuses. But Iku, after her resistant sharpness, acquiesces, and she reciprocates Yori's openness with a kiss. What’s most interesting about these kindred scenes is that both of them unravel as one unbroken handheld shot, but utilize entirely different pacing and extents of disclosure, and still manage to approximate one another's meaning and urgency .
After a second act, in which Yori underhandedly distances himself from Iku, entering a shell of a relationship with Tomoka, MY SISTER MY LOVE ends where it began. In the final sequence of the film, a reunited Iku and Yori travel together by train to the field from their childhood. “Let’s go there. We can make rings for each other and say it again [the marriage proposal from the opening scene],” Yori suggests. But what the twins arrive at is not a lush sun-bathed field, but a bristled barren patch that holds no measure of its former glory. Yori says with a kind of sullen astonishment,“As expected... We really can’t go back…to that time, and that place.” Now, what could descend into a bout of sentimental melodrama is kept in check by Ando’s sensibilities of moderation. Ando doesn’t delude with an unlikely sense of hope, or a strained delusion that the twins can perpetuate their love affair without garnering future rebuke, or that that rebuke may not eventually sour their unity. He also inversely doesn’t saturate us in melancholia or pity. Instead Ando crafts a resolution that is, in a sense perfect because it doesn’t deviate too far from the emotional center of the film and break its crucial tonal consistency. By this I mean, that in the twins’ solemn acceptance of the impossibility of their love to actualize in the way that they desire, they devastate us but don’t let us hit the ground; a metaphor held beautifully in an incredible extended handheld shot of Iku and Yori playing a childhood game of piggy-back, in which a game of jan-ken-po (rock-paper-scissors) every 10 paces determines the mule. “I lied. For Iku to be my bride...I can't do it,” Yori says in muted sobs, with Iku on his back, her hair draped over her face and his shoulder, holding on to him with such apparent love.
Unlike Theo and Isa of THE DREAMERS and Jack and Ennis of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, who choose fatalism over a future, Iku and Yori choose to consider the facts and come to a pained but rational appreciation of the impossibility of their continued romance. They choose to spare themselves unremitting suffering in the future, and are able to make the decision on their own terms, rather than concede to an imposed mechanism (not that conventions of accepted love aren’t at fault here). Iku and Yori can still be together, share with each other, and even love one another…its now simply a matter of extent. Restraining love is a painful thing to endure, especially when it is for the person closest to you…but it CAN be endured. They’ve known that kind of denial all their lives. In a way, it is a return to form for both of them. And so Iku buries the small broken flower that Yori picked the night before in remembrance of his childhood marriage proposal, leaving the icon of their love precisely where it was born. “Having the memory of this flower being here…makes me feel better,” she says. And after playing a childhood game tinged with finality, they pull themselves together, wear a smile, and walk hand in hand through a dry open field, on with their lives.
MY SISTER, MY LOVE is a minor masterpiece of centered and confident storytelling, restrained and judicious editing, and beautiful but humble cinematography, all of which combine to best serve its tone, content, and performances. Sure, Ando employs a certain conventionality in the film’s overall arc and three-act structure, but the pacing, tact, and manner of simple non-affronting candor with which he navigates that arc is what sets it apart from any commonality.