Genre: Surreal Apocalypticism
review in one breath
I really enjoyed this movie. It is imaginative and visionary while grounded in in a few ancient intuitions. Hakuchi blends and evokes images reminiscent of the realpolitik of Salome, the apocalyptic state of Blade Runner and the societal perversity of Clockwork Orange. Its underlying framework, however, is grounded in Japanese (Shinto and Buddhist) notions of renewal, redemption and the end times.
Hakuchi takes place in a perpetually worn-torn Japan. Black and white images of the devastation and carnage, accompanied with WW2-style American bombers immediately suggest that the film is set at the height of the bombing of Japan toward the end of World War II. But any similarity to history ends there as modern, colorful images are introduced to the otherwise black and white scenario. Amidst the utter poverty and suffering of the victims of war, glamor photo shoots and MTV-like pop music videos starring the media goddess Ginga are broadcast non-stop from a large black ziggurat looming over the skyline. No evidence of "Western" influence exists other than the long-tailed sea-captain style coat worn by the oppressively overbearing media producer who is overseeing Ginga's "20th Birthday Special Broadcast". Instead, Thai culture is infused throughout Japan, impacting dress, dance, music and make-up.
The earliest scene of the movie is of a sobbing child sitting aside the charred remains of his mother and grandmother, amidst the bombed and burned rubble which was just moments before their home. Rapidly flashing photographs of the child are being taken by an otherwise unruffled photographer, who is taking a brief respit from his glamor shoot only yards away. Tall, slender and vibrantly colored models with quaffed hairdo pose stoically. When the camera stops shooting, however, they seemed disturbed to be in such a god-forsaken place.
The child grows up to be our main character, Izawa, who works for the oppressive director as an assistant though secretly wishes he would one day produce his own films. He has filmed short scenes, of water, grass blowing and clouds moving through blue sky. These he sits and watches at home, dreaming of other places and other chances. The real world, however, has little room for dreams, as Izawa is constantly reminded by his belittling boss and the even more sadistic Ginga, who Izawa must pamper while shooting her birthday special or face dire consequence. (Pampering her also certainly has its dire consequences!)
Ginga is Madonna, Brittney Spears and Shirley Temple all rolled into one and multiplied one hundred-fold. Everyone around her heeds her every whim, laughs at her every joke, and smilingly endures her every cruelty. And cruelty is something she has mastered, whether it be visciously snipping Izawa's earlobe with a long scissors or spitting chewed food on the ground and demanding he eat it. But such trivial temperaments are overlooked by Izawa's superiors (and inferiors) due to the grandiose role Ginga plays in the overall scheme of things. She is both goddess and idol, adored and beloved, both sexual and omnipotent. She dances and sings, adorned in quasi-modern Thai garb, in video sets which put the computer generated scenes of Lawnmower Man to shame. Ginga is so embedded in the media monolith that her success is everyone's success and her displeasure spells doom for whoever she cares to blame. She is the godhead of an utterly hedonistic, media-dominated society in which appearance, power and drugs are the true currency.
When not working in the looming ziggurat, Izawa spends most of his time in the upstairs room he rents from the family below. His neighborhood has thus far been spared the bombing, though just a short stroll away lies the desolation of the war. Frequently the formations of large bombers high above can be seen, with sounds of bombs buffeting distant landscapes. The ever present threat of annihilation has wreaked its havoc on the neighborhood, where crime and mischief are rampant. Years ago this social decay apparently caused the man next door to lose his mind. Scenes of his climbing the tower, screaming incoherently against the sky constitute the flashbacks which define the now disheveled man who quietly appears to paint larges faces on the pigs or chase the chickens, only to disappear again behind the large gate surrounding his impressive home. From his window Izawa can look directly at the mysterious house, and on one occasion spots the man's daughter, Saiyo, a slender, pale, almost nymph-like woman standing on the veranda looking his way. She quietly and distantly stares as a servant woman repeatedly urges her to go back inside.
After an unusually difficult day in which Izawa is beaten by four of Ginga's guards for spurning her advances (actually, he vomited when she kissed him), he returns to his room to find Saiyo hiding in his small closet. She is crying and when he touches her she can only say that "My soul is breaking." When Izawa embraces her he discovers something he has heretofore not, something which is the antithesis of the desolation, the abandonment and the hedonism which constituted his world. Saiyo's purity and innocence spawn a deep love within Izawa. She becomes for him the Hakuchi no Onna (Innocent Woman) and she finds in him the calmness, sincerity and depth utterly lacking from the only relationship she has known, with her delusional father. As they sit together watching Izawa's short film they wordlessly communicate the visions they have of the the story they would tell should the chance come. It is a story of nature and journey, and of the gods recreating the world afresh, burning away the societal and moral chaff that surrounds them.
When Saiyo turns up missing after Izawa fails to return home for the night, he ventures into the house next door to look for her. There he finds hallways filled with buddhas and burning incense, and walls filled with bizarre and amazing paintings of faces, flames and eyes. In a calm encounter with her father in a room filled with stones intricately painted as faces, the mad man explains that the face is that which distinguishes man from stone. Without the face, no soul, no hope, no meaning exists. As the father quietly chants, Izawa falls into a trance in which he is the child in the opening scene. His mother is there, but she scurries through darkened hallways, just out of his reach. As he follows her into the recesses of the house, he comes upon his mother sleeping beneath covers on the floor. As the child struggles to wake his mother, the mother becomes the grown Izawa beneath the covers. Grown Izawa now struggles to shake himself awake, more frantically, more terrified that he himself may never wake.
When he wakes from the trance the father is gone and the sound of bombers fill the sky. The sky is red with flame and the occupants of the neighborhood are hurriedly loading their belongings onto carts in an attempt to flee the death to come. He is first defiant in his unwillingness to run, and runs inside to grab his camera, filming the wild scenarios around him. Finding Saiyo huddled in the yard in fear, he attempts to film her as she weeps and holds out her hand for help. As he continues to film, ignoring her requests, he suddenly recalls himself as the crying child being apathetically photographed as he cried beside the corpse of his mother. In sudden realization and disgust he throws the camera to the ground and takes Saiyo's hand. As huge firebombs fall on the neighborhood, destroying the fleeing towns people as they traverse the main streets, Izawa takes Saiyo along a remote path leading beneath a large billboard, ironically featuring the now faded models of the initial photo shoot. They make their way to a shallow river leading out of town, and through an immense tunnel of fire carefully wade until they are out of harm's way. They find themselves at the location which Izawa had filmed, amidst green grass and trees, with sea scape rising to the horizon. As they sit looking out over the water, the story they had dreamed of telling comes to life.
Izawa and Saiyo walk hand in hand up large mountains, first of green, then of stone, until they reach the precipice of a large volcano. Below them lies the large pool of red molten lava, and as they sit there they slowly melt into the mountain, becoming stone themselves, until only their lidless eyes move back and forth beneath a veneer of rock. From the pool of lava emerges an immense goddess who shines in brilliant light and whose gaze awakens the myriad nature gods and goddesses, the size of whom dwarfs the land and sea. The awakened gods renew the earth, sky and water until all is green and blue and clear. As the shining goddess looks down upon the new earth, she sees the small boy looking up at her.
Back at the sea side, Izawa and Saiyo sit gazing out across the sunset.
In a room strewn with paper, books and writing materials, a haggard writer pens the last lines of his story and lights a cigarette as he throws open the shudders of his small room and gazes out the window at the sun filled afternoon.
|The apocalyptic, Thai-infused culture of this film is really imaginative. This film creates in indelible image of the impact of war on the psyche of Japan and presents a very satirical critique of contemporary media-worship. The imagery and concepts here are truly striking.||Some graphic and realistic war carnage. Ginga's sadism also is worth mention here.||No nudity or sex, though Izawa has one funky dream where Ginga is being eaten (literally) in the heat of passion.||The imagery is outstanding, ranging from computer-generated rock videos to the awakening of the Shinto Gods of Creation and Rebirth. The buddho-mystical paintings by Saiyo's father are also mind-bending. This is really a unique film visually and packs a substantive, thought-provoking message.|