Japan Cuts 2016: The Shell Collector and Being Good Reviews

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2016 started on July 14th and is running through July 24th. My thoughts on last year’s festival can be read starting here.

My thoughts on Bitter Honey and Lowlife Love can be read here, and those on Nagasaki: Memories of My Son and Bakuman here.

 

The Shell Collector

“Being alone is intimate.”

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In The Shell Collector Japan Cuts 2016 recipient of the Cut Above award Lily Franky plays an elderly blind man who has isolated himself from society and spends his time collecting shells along the beach. The opening of the movie has a serene quality as it shows his everyday life and events that bring a trouble woman unexpectedly into it. From there the movie’s tone and direction changes a couple times, dealing with escalating events and consequences arising from the intersection of the old man’s hobby and a mysterious disease affecting the islands around his reclusive home.

The entire movie is incredibly well acted and directed to convey a real feeling of blindness of the main character. Little touches regarding the way he searches for his shells and finds his way around his home really sell the concept, which is so important to the way the plot unfolds. Excellent cinematography featuring fantastic locations and great integration of art, props, etc heighten the atmosphere and impact of the film expertly.

The themes are abstract, and I’m still not sure quite what to make of the film as a whole. I realize it was bound by being an adaptation of a short story and is quite faithful to the source material from what I understand, but I wanted something more/different from story. The early portion of the film was my favorite, and it seemed there was great potential to continue in that same vein throughout.

The Q&A afterward with the director, the producer, and star Lily Franky was interesting and once again the moderator had great questions and asked the question I had in mind. Franky’s sense of humor was off-color and a little inappropriate at times, but overall this was another good Q&A.

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Overall I think I liked The Shell Collector, although some parts quite a bit more than others. I didn’t find it great in total, but parts of it certainly were and it was certainly a good film.

 

Being Good

“I don’t know how to be good.”

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Being good tackles numerous related difficult societal issues regarding forms of abuse and ingrained standards, attitudes, and expectations that facilitate these tragic situations. It’s a poignant, raw look at both these difficult situations as well as some of the obstructions to dealing  with them.

The key to the movie is the careful touch with which this delicate subject matter is presented. The film does not shy away from illustrating the harshness of the problems being addressed in a blunt manner, but it is done with a point and completely without sensationalism and none of the scenes ever feel the least bit exploitive. Abuse is sadly a part of the lives of the characters, and it needs to be shown matter of factly in order for the audience to understand its nature and depth, and for the characters to be able to contemplate what to do about it.

This of course makes parts of the film (extremely) hard to watch, but the important things the story has to say about abuse make these scenes both worth watching and indispensable to the film. The most important thing is that there are glimmers of hope and genuine efforts and desire from certain characters to break these cycles. These are stories that don’t just present an upsetting status quo, they express a wish for things to be better.

Through three parallel stories in the same town, Being Good tackles subjects ranging from a young school teacher trying to learn how to deal with bullying within his classroom as well as trying to help a student he suspects is being abused, to a mother who disciplines her child through violence and hates herself for it, to society’s attitudes towards the metal ill and how it changes with the person’s age, to some of the emotional realities of raising an autistic child. This variety of related issues and the skill with which they were integrated together into a single film are incredibly impressive. Each of the three parallel tales are balanced perfectly, without any characters, stories, or themes feeling shortchanged and with all of them receiving equal and appropriate weight.

That the director was able to bring all of this together is amazing. Being Good is an adaptation of three short stories from a collection of five. Making everything work in the balanced manner I described without losing any of the underlying messages or their impact is a huge accomplishment. The acting is equally superb, both from the adults grappling with moral dilemmas and feelings of bitter realities beyond their control, and from child actors tasked with communicating heart wrenching emotional distress. I found this film just phenomenally made from top to bottom.

The Q&A with director Mipo O following the screening was illuminating, as she covered topics ranging from how this film differed from her other movies, to the process of adapting these stories and approaching the subject matter, to the care with which certain scenes needed to be approached, specifically in making sure the child actors were not suffering emotion distress themselves in the process of having to portray it.

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Being Good is a masterpiece, and may very well be the best film of an extremely strong Japan Cuts Festival this year.

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So these were two more unique and thought provoking films featured during the festival. Will be back with more a couple more reviews as Japan Cuts concludes. 🙂

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