Produced with the participation of HBO Romania, “The Japanese Dog” features no scenes of violence, no bad language, not even the barest suggestion of sex or nudity, and the minimal events that unfurl over the span of 83 minutes might be the first act of a single episode in any cable network program. However, the debut feature film by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu is far from dull. A surprisingly expressive, layered drama, the filmmaking may be unshowy, but it’s confident and compelling, allowing viewers to settle into its intimate story, told in gentle, hushed rhythms. The aesthetic may not be for everyone’s taste, but Jurgiu’s film is deeply refreshing cinema, using what little it has to evoke a complex portrait of a man coming to terms with the final stage of his life.
Costache (Victor Rebengiuc) is an elderly man of few words and fierce independence. A flood recently ravaged the small town where he lives, and Costache, who tragically lost his wife Maria, is putting the pieces back together. With stoic determination he’s steadily getting the house he’s been allotted into livable shape, and he’s got potential wealth on the horizon in a brewing land deal with a power company, facilitated by local officials, that could net him a hefty sum…if he can negotiate a fair price. But those talks don’t get very far because as Costache explains, he has no idea what he would do with that kind of money anyway. The arrival of his estranged son Ticu (Serban Pavlu), with his Japanese wife, Hiroku (Kana Hashimoto), and his young son, Paul Koji (Toma Hashimoto), finds Costache forced to engage with a new family he hadn’t considered a possibility.
It’s against this backdrop of tentative reconciliation that Jurgiu quietly unfolds thoughtful ruminations, but not polemics, on the differing views of two generations and what Romania’s future holds for them. For Paul, who has been gone many years, married a woman from another country, and has built a life abroad, it’s clear that his homeland has long since been viewed as a place of opportunity. In fact, part of the reason for his return is to coax his father to come with him back to Japan, but Costache cannot think of leaving. Almost every facet of his life have been defined by the small routines and familiar faces of the town, and for his part, he would be more pleased if his son re-settled where he was born. And thus marks the divide between father and son, one that in its own softly persuasive way will be resolved by the film’s end, in a manner that Jurgiu reaches delicately, letting the reasons for key decisions arrive like the final, graceful note in a sip of fine wine.
Not surprisingly, Jurgiu’s elegant film is shot just as carefully as it is told. While the economy of the film’s production may seem like something due to the constraints of a limited budget rather than an aesthetic choice, a careful viewing of the film reveals this not the case. More often than not, Jurgiu choses to have scenes play out unbroken in front of an unmoving camera, with characters interacting within each painterly composition. When the camera does move, in slow pans, the moments and sequences for which they are utilized have added dramatic impact. Particularly for those accustomed to American cinema’s tendency for fast cuts and frenetic filmmaking, it’s something of a revelation, and provides a real appreciation for the craftsmanship of filmmaking.
While it’s Romania’s entry for this year’s Academy Award race, “The Japanese Dog” likely doesn’t stand much of a chance against starrier, buzzier foreign film entries with bigger PR machines behind them. But for anyone who follows international cinema, don’t let Jurgiu’s film pass you by. He’s a filmmaker blessed with the rarest gifts of storytelling, technical precision, and the confidence not to make himself or his technique a presence felt in every frame of the movie. Debuts rarely arrive as composed as this, and “The Japanese Dog” confirms Jurgiu as a notable emerging talent. [A]