An achingly lovely film ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, June 25, 2009

An achingly lovely film

My rating:

I have been to only two funerals in my life: the first that of a school friend who was killed in a road accident, the second my grandmother's. Both times, I wasn't sure what to feel - I recall vague emotions of regret that I never spent more time with them, but they were just, well, vague. I was all of 17 during the first, and well into my adulthood during the second; but I'm not sure if I'll ever really know how to respond to the death of a loved one. I doubt it'll ever be as cathartic for me as you see in movies, or this one in particular.

It's a rare film that gets me introspective like this. And this is certainly a rare film.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a concert cellist who's out of a job when his orchestra folds. He persuades his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to follow him back to his hometown and the house his late mother left him, which holds uncomfortable memories of the father who left him when he was a child. Seeking work, he answers a classified ad put up by what he thinks is a travel agency, run by a Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his secretary Yuriko (Kimiko Yo). It turns out Sasaki is looking for an assistant in the trade of "encoffinment", the practice of cleaning, dressing and applying makeup to the departed at funerals. Although Daigo balks at first, he soon finds fulfillment in the job - but must face the prejudices of others, including his wife, at his "unclean" line of work.

From the very first scene in which Daigo performs his duties in front of the family of the departed, you'll know you're in good hands with this film. The encoffining process is a careful, respectful, almost ceremonial, and utterly lovely ritual. I can confidently say it's something you've never seen before in a film, and coming as it does in the very beginning of the movie, it effortlessly draws you into its story and its world. Later we see how this process affects those still living, even when it's done wrong. The first time we see a grieving husband weep over the body of his wife, meticulously restored to the beauty she possessed when she was alive, I am not ashamed to say I was brought to tears, and I'm sure most of the audience I saw it with was too.

Yes, it's an unashamed tear-jerker, and it's so honest and true that you should not be ashamed at all if it makes you shed tears. Yet there are also generous doses of humour, primarily from its early scenes of Daigo's initial squeamishness at handling dead bodies. There are no gross-out shots of corpses, but Motoki's performance is enough to make us both squirm and laugh. In fact, his very first job is to be the model for a corpse upon which Sasaki demonstrates his trade for a DVD. This is practically sitcom-level humour, but you forgive it because it's all executed in such a real and humanistic manner.

In fact, it succeeds at making you forgive quite a bit. As fascinating as the encoffining process is, we are shown just a tad too many scenes of it. The plot unfolds in an entirely predictable manner, and the conflicts are arguably resolved way too easily. And on just one or two occasions, it falls into self-conscious profundity. Yet none of this detracts from the sincerity of the film. When the climax comes along, in which Daigo finally comes to terms with the father who abandoned him... yes, it's predictable, but it still works at wrenching the necessary emotions from you. It's earned them.

Motoki's performance is, as mentioned, terrific. He starts off as almost buffoonish in his sad-sackness, but he never allows us to laugh at him instead of with him; we see how his heart breaks when his wife leaves him, and ours break right along with his. Hirosue too is a joy to watch; she may be playing an archetypical perky and borderline-infantile Japanese wife, but she imbues real strength and character into her role, all the while being cute as a button. Yamazaki puts a delightful spin on his Yoda-like role, and Yo shines in her few scenes as the secretary with a secret shame.

I don't believe I've mentioned anything about music in any of my reviews, but here I believe it deserves a mention. There is a solo cello piece that Daigo plays at one point in the movie, and the theme reoccurs often throughout. It's as lovely as anything else in the film, and if you're the type to tear up at music, that scene is as likely to make you cry as any other. The music is by Joe Hisaishi, which, if you've watched any of Hayao Miyazaki's movies, should constitute another strong recommendation for this film.

Only towards the end of the film are we given to understand exactly what the encoffining process means: it is a final act of love, performed for one whom we will always regret not doing more for when they were alive. Now I know why my vague emotions of regret were so vague. I can't engage the services of Sasaki and Daigo, but the next time a loved one leaves me, I hope I'll think of something I can do in its stead.

NEXT REVIEW: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Anticipation level: bleh. That's right, I said bleh


wankongyew said...

"Yes, it's unashamedly a tear-jerker.." works better I think.

Movies aren't my big thing and I don't watch as many as I probably should, but I do check in here from time to time. You write well enough that I'm curious if you do any writing in a professional capacity?

TMBF said...

I do, in fact, write for a living. I started this blog partly to remind myself that I actually enjoy writing, so that it doesn't become just a job to me.

Yami said...

Have you watched The Lives of Others? One of the most best foreign movies in recent year, in my opinion.