Ren OsugiAyumu SaitoKazue FukiishiTatsuya Fuji
Village Photobook
Also known as: Mura no Shashinshuu
Medium: film
Year: 2004
Writer/director: Mitsuhiro Mihara
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Tatsuya Fuji, Ken Kaito, Mao Miyaji, Masahiro Komoto, Mutsuko Sakura, Kazue Fukiishi, Ren Osugi, Tomoyo Harada, Pace Wu, Ayumu Saito
Format: 111 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0780087/
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 2 January 2014
It's a Japanese human drama that Tomoko gave me for Christmas because it was filmed in Tokushima prefecture, where her grandmother lives and her parents grew up. It's quite good.
Firstly, the DVD. Bad news: I don't think it's available in the West. Good news: the Japanese R2 release has English subtitles, so you can order it from amazon.co.jp if you can handle the eye-watering prices of DVDs in Japan. (The UK and Japan are both R2, although there's a PAL/NTSC disparity.) Alert: don't buy a second-hand ex-rental disc, because those don't have subtitles. We found this out the hard way. What's more, almost everyone in the film is talking Tokushima dialect and so you probably won't understand what they're saying unless you've spent a significant amount of time there. (That's assuming you speak Japanese in the first place, of course. In short, make sure of those subtitles.)
The film's about an old man (Tatsuya Fuji), his son (Ken Kaito) and their Tokushima village, which is scheduled for obliteration. There's going to be a dam. The village will be submerged. Obviously everyone will be compensated and given all the time they need to move away, but even so the villagers decide they'd like a photographic record of the rural life they're about to lose. Tatsuya Fuji used to run a photo studio, so they ask him and he in turn calls Ken Kaito, who's working in Tokyo as an assistant photographer. Together they start taking photos.
Unfortunately the two don't get on. Fuji is so old-fashioned that he's practically fossilised and it's almost impossible to talk to him. He doesn't have conversations. He barely speaks. He just utters orders without even looking at you and, if he thinks you're being disrespectful, might throw away your mobile phone before punching you in the face. He also hasn't talked to his older daughter for years, after she married a man he disapproved of.
Kaito hates Fuji's guts, which seems a fairly normal reaction.
Obviously, over the course of the film, the two will get to know each other better. They're alike in some ways, not all of them good. (The police could live without this family's fondness for fists.) Kaito has also been thinking of his dad as a country bumpkin because he lives in a mountain village in Tokushima, instead of moving to Tokyo like all the hip young things. An interesting discovery is that Fuji is a better photographer than Kaito, for instance, despite using a box camera from the Stone Age and having a technique that's basically "smile at clients and bow to them afterwards". You already know where this kind of film is going, but it's to its credit that the film isn't saccharine. Both main characters have significant impediments to likeability, which makes their journey to reconciliation meaningful.
Tomoko made a couple of observations that I'd never have noticed myself, but I pass on anyway. Firstly, the Tokushima dialect's not quite right. These actors aren't from Tokushima themselves and the script's not full-on 100% dialect either, or else Japanese people might have been struggling to understand too. Secondly, that's not a village! Tomoko's grandmother lives in a village. It has about twenty houses and it's on the side of a mountain. This film is showing a town.
For my part, I'd like to grumble about a singer. The song Amazing Grace is used more than once in the soundtrack, eventually being sung, complete with the original English lyrics... but by a singer who hates consonants. She sounds great, but I couldn't follow the words and I know the song!
There's a motif of locals vs. foreigners. Kaito has a lady friend who speaks Japanese fluently but with a strong Chinese accent. (She's played by Pace Wu, who's from Taiwan and usually works in Hong Kong or China, although she's also in a Japanese Steven Seagal film.) Pace Wu is great, actually, and livens up the film whenever she appears. We meet a couple from Tokyo who've settled down in Tokushima and explain why, while Kaito takes offence against some travelling businessmen being snotty about having to pass through hicksville. It's true that in real life lots of these rural communities are dying out and/or becoming geriatric because all the young people are moving out in search of jobs; this film isn't directly about that issue, but you could equally see it as a subtext for everything.
Ren Osugi's in it, by the way. You can't do J-horror and Takashi Miike films all the time. Be warned also that there are two Ken Kaitos: one with his natural hair colour (on the plane) and one who's dyed it to look like toffee (most of the film). It wasn't until the end that I realised these were the same person.
For what it's worth, this won the Golden Goblet (Best Film and Best Actor) at the 2005 Shanghai International Film Festival. It's good, although you'll need an attention span. It's gentle, it's slow but enjoyable and it is indeed, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Tokushima, which is pretty. It finds emotion and it manages to avoid the big cliches I'd been expecting in this familiar genre. It's nice.