Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Japon

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

JAPON

4/10

aka Japan : Mexico/Spain 2002 : Carlos Reygadas : 122-147 mins

Its standard practice to describe certain directors as influential, but what isn’t often acknowledged is that this kind of influence can as often be negative as positive. Quentin Tarantino famously influenced many young film-makers of the mid- and late-nineties, but few would argue that cinemagoers were consequently any better off. What they took from Pulp Fiction wasnt the scripts audacious formal experimentation they just stole the idea of having comic gangsters exchanging pop-culture smalltalk along with their bullets.

Mexican writer-director Carlos Reygadas could never be accused of being a Taranteenie, of course like the protagonist of his debut, Japon, he’s aiming for much higher ground. Though there are generous dollops of Werner Herzog in there, its clear he’s been watching more Andrei Tarkovsky than is good for him or us. Moments after a title-card revealing the name of one of the production companies as Solarisfilm, Reygadass first shots are so accurate a quotation from the Osaka-highway section of Solaris itself that you have to check the frame to make sure there are no Japanese signs on view, and that Reygadas hasnt simply spliced in a section from Tarkovsky.

But as Japon slowly unfolds and, despite around 25 minutes having been trimmed for international release, it unfolds extremely slowly it becomes clear that Reygadas has appropriated elements of Tarkovskys style, but very little of his substance. Solaris, Andrei Rublev, Stalker and The Sacrifice are hardly breezy viewing experiences but the Russian maestro invariably scatters his films enough magical, transcendent images and events to ensure audiences will bear with him during all the surrounding slower patches. Hes also careful to place all of this within a reasonably coherent structure to support his weighty philosophical ambitions. Reygadas, however, seems to think its enough to train his camera at some spectacular landscape and play some stately, atmospheric classical music, and that, by some cinematic alchemy, art will result.

His plot could easily be accommodated within a 15-minute short – no less than three editors are credited, Reygadas presumably reckoning they’d feud among themselves and thus allow Japon to ooze beyond the two-hour mark. A man in his sixties (Alejandro Ferretis) travels from the city to a remote mountainous region of plateaus and valleys, where he intends to kill himself. He moves in with Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a religious widow in her eighties, and the pair strike up a flinty but productive friendship. Part of Ascens house is to be demolished by a rapacious relative. Her lodger makes some feeble attempts to intervene, but these prove unsuccessful. Tragedy ensues.

But Japon doesnt concern itself too much with specific narrative events it wants to be about moods and atmospheres, gestures and attitudes, communication without words. Reygadass goal is enigma: with grinding predictability, our hero is never named he’s referred to in the end credits simply as El Hombre. Likewise, there’s no reference to Japon (Mexican for Japan) anywhere in interview, Reygadas has suggested its something to do with the Rising Sun representing Rebirth, but one would struggle to make such a connection from the film itself.

As such statements suggest, Japon is a tedious, pretentious piece of work and, as such, has of course been hailed as a masterpiece in certain quarters. To be fair, there are some good things here: Magdalena Flores is a welcome oasis of no-nonsense energy, even if what Ascen is required to do in the latter stages is more a result of Reygadas graceless intellectual caprices than anything to do with plausible character development. Diego Martinez Vignattis cinematography is first-rate, his mountainous images recalling Herzogs dreamy Teutonic landscapes from Heart of Glass (a work no less rewarding for being quite astonishingly soporific).

But, presumably goaded by Reygadas, Vignatti’s final shot strains so desperately at being a tour de force that it goes, quite literally, off the rails – criminally wasting Arvo Part’s ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’, which, of course, we hear in its full seven-minute version. Reygadas’ most unforgivable lapse, however, is his on-camera treatment of animals (one recalls Tarkovsky’s unacceptably harrowing treatment of a horse in Andrei Rublev). In interviews, Reygadas has defended himlself by making specious claims that Japon represents how close country people are to their local fauna. We’re supposed to take this as justification for the moment when, barely minutes in, there’s scene in which a wounded bird is decapitated before our eyes. Reygadas cuts to the severed head, still blinking and moving its beak – it’s all too clear that no special effects have been employed, and many viewers will be tempted to walk out, even at this early point. They wouldn’t be missing much.

24th August, 2002
(seen 16th, Filmhouse Edinburgh Edinburgh Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young