Shara meets Birth
By Andrew Tracy

No critic worth his salt is immune to the lure of exoticism. After all, it was that initial thrill of discovering whole other worlds of film (coupled most likely with an innate snobbishness) that got us into this game in the first place. “Difference” is a powerful motivation for both positive and negative ends, and what makes that power troubling is that the positive and the negative cannot assume the form of a binary opposition: grounded as both of them are in the perception of difference, they must share the edge. And thus comparative exercises such as the one now before us become doubly instructive, revealing as they do the limits to which even expanded consciousnesses (such as they are) are subject. For the perhaps inevitable undertone of even the most self-aware comparisons is to reduce matters to “immutable” cultural truths—that is, to the supposedly insurmountable barriers of difference separating “East” from “West”. Good contextualizers that we are, we labor to escape from such knee-jerks, but how very easy it is to reject something intellectually while maintaining it instinctually.

The devilish thing about such reductionism (whether positive or negative) is that there’s something genuine about it. From the viewpoint of the cinephile, the sense of difference is inextricable from the sensation of discovery; the strangeness, the seeming lack of ties to our own familiarities, contributes to the impact. That this is obviously a fiction does nothing to dispel its thinking or unthinking acceptance. What is telling is the powerful longevity of that fiction, along with those other, less pleasant fictions with which it shares its perceptual error. For there is something in this fiction that goes beyond racialism, that channels directly into our ways of perceiving the world and the mediations of the world which we seek out—that embeds itself in our reactions to art. Much of the fascination of a Hou, Tsai, Kiarostami or Apichatpong film lies not only in the fact that it issues from a different part of the world, but from a wholly different world of art: a perception of cinema "not as something to be made, but to be inhabited, as if it were there always, like the world," as Stanley Kauffmann said of Through the Olive Trees.

That impression of eternity goes hand in hand with the notion of purity, and the two combine to form a sensation of unchangeableness, a kind of holy stasis unafflicted by the compromises and corruption of the commercial cinema. This conception of art channels directly back into the fabricated geopolitical divide which it pretends to leave behind. Just as the cultures and languages of other lands challenge our provincial perceptions, so the cultures and languages of “art” cinema mark a counterpoint to the conventions of mainstream moviemaking (Hollywood, our unwilled homeland). And similarly, the poles of rejection and reverence strikes the same note of possessiveness, “our” cinema defined in either stridently nationalistic terms by your Rex Reeds or Todd McCarthys (despite the complex ties of international financing running through Hollywood movies) or equally strident declarations of membership in the stateless province of art (despite the art cinema’s all-too-material ties to the fluctuations of states and commerce).

To note this fiscal equivalence is not to place all films, whether “art” or “commercial,” domestic or foreign, on a plane of equality (another reduction). For the defiantly irreducible fact is that those foreign films which mean the most to us are different: they are different because they allow us to reconsider our relationship with the world. To be moved by Edward Yang or Mohsen Makhmalbaf is not, despite that “transcendent” tag which gets dropped with almost comical regularity, to be suddenly confronted with a higher and indisputable truth, but rather to engage in a dialogue. It is the strategies by which filmmakers and audiences navigate their encounters with difference that the value of these films is created.

So if I declare now that Naomi Kawase’s Shara (2003), one of the best and most unheralded films of the last few years, is a more profound expression of loss than, say, Jonathan Glazer’s unfairly dismissed Birth (2004), this has less to do with their cultural origins than it does with the relative success of their stylistic and thematic strategies. If anything, the highly concentrated, almost singleminded focus of both films helps to illuminate the inherently paradoxical nature of those origins. After all, the supposedly delimited cinematic tradition from which Kawase hails could produce within its circumscribed space both an Ozu and his onetime assistant Imamura, two artistic worlds which barely touch each other—as to Kawase herself, her nearest stylistic analogue would probably be the Dardennes from Belgium. Birth has an even more complicated lineage: a luxe American setting, in a story by a French writer (Jean-Claude Carriere) as interpreted by a British director under the explicit influence of an American recluse (Kubrick) who spent much of his life in voluntary exile in England. Thus if Shara is expansive while Birth, despite the scattered fascinations along the way, is ultimately schematic and enclosed, we can no more attribute the former’s success to its “Japaneseness” than we can the latter’s failure to its being “American”—or, going further, their “Easternness” or “Westernness.” What decides the fate of both films is the means by which they infuse the sensation of loss into the quite specific spaces in which they and their characters reside. It is their active, functional metaphorization of space, rather than the determinacy of a fabricated national space, that produces whatever truths the films have to offer.

Considering that death is a more than frequent component of any national cinema, it is intriguing how few films seriously try to deal with the intricacies of loss, as apart from the black hole of grief. Perhaps this is because loss is as ontological as it is emotional. Grief can be contained within a single consciousness (and a single narrative), but loss is an actual, physical absence where once there was a presence—and the continued presence of all those things that surrounded that which was lost remains imprinted with its memory. To depict this in the cinema, therefore, requires a highly conscious strategy for dealing with space, that fundamental material of the cinema which is so often taken for granted.

For Glazer, as previously mentioned, that strategy is adopted from Kubrick’s memorable use of interior spaces whose expansiveness only further emphasizes their claustrophobic enclosure: the 18th-century splendor of Barry Lyndon, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the timelessly decadent havens of the New York rich (filmed, of course, in London) in Eyes Wide Shut. This last film is Glazer’s obvious starting point, but it would be unfair to state that he simply lifts the aesthetic wholesale. Rather, he employs those spatial strategies to create—more successfully, I would argue, than Kubrick—emotional beings whom we can care about (initially, at least). The apex of this twofold strategy, of course, is in the now oddly famous minutes-long shot of Nicole Kidman’s Anna as she sits at the opera. The common (lazy) reflex for describing this scene is to comment upon the “currents of emotions playing across her face” or what have you, but what is truly extraordinary (that is, extraordinarily simple) about the scene is its impermeability. We are not looking for the hints of the unknowable emotional life coursing under the surface but witnessing the knowable—yet no less mysterious—body in which it is housed. Kidman’s face and body, asexually fetishized with that eerily perfect porcelain skin and Mia Farrow haircut, becomes the active and physical manifestations of a profound irrationality: the belief that her dead husband has returned in the body of a 10-year old boy. And yet this is an irrationality no less senseless than the suddenness with which her husband was claimed by death in the fascinating opening sequence, where the camera follows him as he jogs through a snowbound Central Park.

The solemnity and seriousness with which the film treats its conceit never (I think) descends into silliness, for what it is trying to do—halfway, always frustratingly halfway—is to challenge (as in combat) material reality through the most material of means. The carefully defined spaces in which the story transpires are not merely the film’s setting, but its antagonist. It was the inexplicable workings of a material world which pretends to explicability that stole Anna’s husband from her and which continues to taunt her with his absence. So she strikes back by infusing that world with an inexplicability of her own, her belief that the child Sean (Cameron Bright) is her Sean, a belief that is not merely mental but active. Anna infuses the material world with a transformative force, her belief in the world’s ability to be transformed. In one of the film’s most eerie and beautiful moments, Anna tells Sean how they will run away together and marry when he comes of age: “I wonder what you’ll look like,” she muses, marrying her own seeming irrationality to the seemingly rational progression of nature.

While it maintains this always delicate balance, Birth is not a “psychological” drama but a fascinatingly phenomenological one, its characters not merely having their conception of the world changed but actively changing it themselves. However, there lingers throughout the dread of the payoff, the dispiritingly final revelation about who Sean really is—a revelation bound to fall into the equally reductive camps of the supernatural or the psychological. Ultimately, and unfortunately, Birth is split in its loyalties. Even as it brilliantly employs one set of strategies, it remains pledged to another, those ironclad laws of storytelling, of development and culmination, of “motivation”—strategies which, while not false in themselves, when combined with the first set makes falsities of them all. So the explanation comes and the whole edifice crumbles. We’re back in the explicability of grief, of singularity and confinement, with Kidman in her white wedding dress stumbling along the beach like a still fresh-faced Miss Havisham.

Birth negates itself once it stops discovering its world and begins to contain it, when it gives in to the determinacy of the material world rather than its protean possibilities. For the terror of the world—and its hope—lies not in its finality but in its continuity, its endless means of reshaping both the pain and the joy it inflicts. The world creates itself anew in every instant, and it is that ceaseless flux which Kawase attempts to capture. As in Birth, the opening scene of Shara obliquely establishes its loss. Two young brothers, Shun and Kei, play and chase each other through the narrow streets of a small village, Kawase’s bobbing, handheld camera converting the streets into a labyrinth, the boys’ shouts and laughter bouncing off the walls—until suddenly, only one voice remains. Ten years later, the now 17-year old Shun, his schoolteacher father, and pregnant mother (played by Kawase) are still haunted by Kei’s unexplained disappearance, despite the support of their community and the comforting rhythm of their daily lives. Rather than the stunted creature whom Kidman’s Anna is eventually revealed to be, these are people whose lives have gone on, yet it is that very continuity which makes the pain ever new, ever real. The streets and houses of the town continue to echo with the cries of the fateful day, not as memory but as tactile presence—or, rather, presence-in-absence. Kei’s loss is interwoven with the space he once inhabited, an inextricable part of all the days which he himself will never see.

Yet just as the specter of loss reshapes and reasserts itself in ever-recurring forms —particularly in a heart-stopping sequence where Shun races to his mother, whose delivery of her new baby may have taken a dire turn—so too does the fragile happiness it once stole away. And as the entire community shares the burden of the family’s loss, so it becomes the conduit for their emotional rebirth. The exuberant transformation of the world which Shara depicts issues not from Shun directly, but from a communal action: the village festival which Shun’s father has been organizing, the movie’s emotional and stylistic apex, and one of the most breathtaking sustained sequences of filmmaking in recent memory. And accordingly, the focal point of this sequence is not the effect that the parade has on Shun but the articulation of its communal power through the person of Yu, Shun’s (possible) girlfriend, a mild-mannered, almost timid girl who, in the rhythmic dancing routine she leads, becomes a tigress—her reserved school outfit exchanged for robes of orange and gold, her eyes accentuated with black makeup, her almost feral delight, the sudden, violent rain shower which falls heightening the excitement of the dance even as it threatens to wash the whole away. Even the elements become harnessed to the sheer human power on display; the tragedy which the world once wrought is inverted by a defiant assertion of joy. As loss diffused into the space of the community, so too does regeneration. And Kawase’s camera, once bound to the people who felt that loss the nearest, now departs from them, following the energy that their loss has belatedly unleashed: back through the streets and alleys still resounding with the voices of Shun and Kei, up through the houses, to balconies and roofs, and finally high into the air, circling slowly and gently (and just as unsteadily) over the entire town.

There is nothing “natural” about this final, exhilarating movement; it is as deliberate, even italicized, as any of Glazer’s carefully composed set-ups. The difference lies in the inner conviction which validates Kawase’s strategies, the lack of which saps the otherwise quite impressive power of Glazer’s. Inevitably, comparisons have come back to contests, to the “successful” or “unsuccessful”. But this cannot be reduced to a hemispheric competition, for as discussed above, Birth’s “Westernness” and Shara’s “Easternness” are highly complicated. The equally distinctive strategies which they employ have no one province: they are open to whomever can make use of them, to whatever extent their experience(s)—personal, cultural, national, racial—allow them to employ those strategies with honesty. Those preceding determinants might seem to negate the contention of openness, but this is hardly the case. For while there is no denying that all those things are real (and vital) in the making of art, this is not to say that they possess one sole meaning. The definitiveness of the words belies the amorphousness of the qualities they denote, for all are constantly in flux, constantly being redefined and redeployed according to the needs of the moment—and to whatever power claims dominion over them. And correspondingly, all “styles” are impositions upon the material which they shape, and it is the manner of that imposing which determines the creative possibilities of the particular difference which they seek to express. Beyond success or failure, beyond even their common theme, at their respective peaks both Birth and Shara share this sense of possibility, this questioning of the fixity of the world, and the fixities we impose upon ourselves.