CANNES 2001 REVIEW: After-Death; Kore-eda Can't Go the "Distance"
by Patrick Z. McGavin
(indieWIRE/05.11.01) — The third feature from the skilled, astute director Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Cannes competition work “Distance,” negotiates the nearly identical terrain of memory, regret and recovery that shaped Shinji Aoyama‘s moving and deeply impressive “Eureka” at last year’s festival. In summoning up a work it cannot possibly equal. The new movie suffers under the deep strain of expectations caused by the seriousness of the subject matter and the past performance of Kore-eda with his previous features “Maborosi” and “After Life.”
Formally, “Distance” is certainly accomplished, though it lacks the concentration and unity of the Aoyama film. The cinematography by Yutaka Yamazaki is both probing and alert, observant in capturing the alienation of a tortured generation. There are a succession of physically arresting images, though the movie is frustratingly opaque, too emotionally diffuse to capture a necessary nuance and depth of expression. In never quite finding a vital rhythm or shape, “Distance” is a work more easily admired than genuinely appreciated.
“Eureka” was a deeply melancholy and graceful exploration of healing and transformation, inspired by the national shock and disruption of a terrorist act. “Distance” — a title that proves hauntingly appropriate — also deals with the same kind of national inquiry, though Kore-eda makes a key structural error at the start of the movie, emphasizing the television news report of the third anniversary of the apocalyptic cult group, Ark of Truth: The act of biological terrorism, conceived by a group of rogue members, contaminating the water supply, caused 128 deaths and thousands of injuries. On the day of national trauma, four friends, three men and a women, relatives of the perpetrators, gather at the isolated lake community where the cult formed to mourn their loss.
By privileging such exposition at the start, Kore-eda reveals too much, denying the emotional investigation of character, story and place. When their car is stolen, the four — joined by Koichi (Tadanobu Asano), a surviving former member of the cult — return to the same cabin hideaway the cult used to center its operation. During the characters’ night of sorrow and pain, Kore-eda resurrects their guilt and memory, drawing on bitter, sad exchanges between the relatives and the cult members. The class and social distinctions are sharply handled, though the storytelling becomes more rigid.
Stylistically, Kore-eda deploys two sharply contrasting shooting styles. The contemporary work is done almost entirely with mobile, hand held cameras, capturing the shifting body inflections and shared emotional complications. As the four central characters, Atsushi (Arata), Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa) and Minoru (Susumu Terajima), and Koichi, navigate their interior consciousness, Kore-eda works in deeper spaces, longer takes and unbroken shots. The use of water is particularly interesting — given the role it functions in most literature and movies as a means of birth and cleansing. Here, it almost invariably means death and disfigurement.
In the director’s notes about the film, Kore-eda says, “The characters in my film neither repudiate the killers, nor ask for pity. They are trapped in the aftermath, half way between victim and criminal. . . . I chose to treat neither the crime nor the cult responsible for it. I am interested in those left behind,” he says. These concerns stake out the continuum of the ideas and personal expression of his first two features, “Maborosi” (1995) and “After Life” (1998). But Kore-eda does not follow through in a way that makes the story compelling and emotionally resonant. He stays too far outside the material to ever fully engage it.
“Distance” becomes an investigation of how the past invades and complicates the present, though the more significant story — morally, socially and personally — is how the surviving family members cope with the personal (and deeply Japanese) sense of anger, guilt, inadequacy and shame visited occasioned by their own family. Those concerns, as well as explorations of ideology, motivation, complicity, are either ignored or insufficiently dealt with. Enigmatic and frustrating, suggestive though inert, “Distance” remains distractedly out of focus.