Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Asian Audient: Late Spring

This is the third in my monthly series devoted to watching movies that originated in countries in Asia, such as Laos and East Timor.

It wasn't late spring when I watched Late Spring. In fact, in Australia, it was the 21st day of autumn, since the seasons change on the first of the month in the southern hemisphere (or at least my part of the southern hemisphere). But by northern hemisphere standards, I at least had the season right. I watched it on March 21st, very early in spring -- as early as you can possibly get.

None of this preamble matters a bit because Yasujiro Ozu's film is timeless.

And "spring" does not seem to refer to a season, per se. It's more about the blossoming of a young woman, it would seem -- a 27-year-old who, by traditional standards, is getting a late start at marriage, a stage of a woman's life that is not considered negotiable. That's the crux of the conflict in Late Spring, in which this woman wants to continue caring for her widowed father, at the expense of pursuing her own family, when society frowns on it and effectively will not allow it.

I have now seen three Ozu films -- the first nearly 25 years ago, twice, and the last two within the past six months. Tokyo Story was my first Ozu, and then the silent I Was Born But ... last year. So I should know by now not to get impatient with Ozu's deliberate (i.e. slow) pacing, as it's going to end up somewhere profound. It always does.

But let's go back to that first viewing back in 1994 or possibly 1995. The experience of watching Tokyo Story was an odd one indeed. Watching it for a film class as a 20-year-old or possibly 21-year-old, I was not yet mature enough to "get it" on first viewing. In fact, it struck me as a chore.

Logically, there mightn't have been a second viewing at all. But for some reason, something about the themes of the movie had resonated with me enough that I chose to focus on this movie for the big in-depth final paper for the class. I don't remember what the assignment dictated that we do, but the movie gave me an instant idea for a "read" that I thought could translate into a paper. And translate it did. I received an A on the paper, and more importantly for my development as my cinephile, I fell in love with Tokyo Story on that second viewing.

So why the incredibly long Ozu break before these last two movies?

Who knows, except that the natural vicissitudes of a viewing schedule certain play a role. Yes, there can be vicissitudes over a quarter of a century.

Like Tokyo Story, Late Spring also focuses on intimate domestic settings exploring the quiet dynamics of Japanese families, navigating society's expectations and their mutual responsibilities in nearly imperceptible ways. In both films, it's the relationship between adult children and their parents that gets examined -- in fact, young children are largely absent, which is interesting as they play a fairly major role in I Was Born, But ... 

The me who was not yet a full blown cinephile, but was perhaps further thrust in the right direction by that second Tokyo Story viewing, would have said that "Nothing happens" in Late Spring. But oh, that me would be so underselling what these movies are doing.

The drama breaks gradually in an Ozu film, like the rising of a tide. That's not a coincidental metaphor, as Late Spring ends in a shot of ocean waves, a perfect single image representing the relentless ongoing continuum of time and tradition. I'm not going to tell you the shot immediately preceding it. That would give away too much.

But let's just say this left me in a similar spot to how I felt after my second Tokyo Story viewing. Something profound had passed between the characters in the story without any of them being able to perfectly articulate it or put too fine a point on their emotional journeys. What's left unsaid is the most important dialogue in an Ozu film. Needs and wants butt up against the deeply ingrained strictures of tradition, but neither does anyone wield that tradition like a weapon. Courses of action are urged, but not demanded; perspectives are assumed, and responded to accordingly.

In a way, the father and daughter in Late Spring both want the same thing, and its realization would both make them very happy. She loves looking after him and he longs to have a companion. But society sees there to be something unnatural about a grown daughter who lives with her father, not because it suggests an improper relationship between them, but because it means she is not fulfilling her presumed destiny of becoming a wife and mother. Interestingly, though, it's this daughter who introduces the most weighted adjective in terms of someone's behavior in this movie. When she learns that a close friend of her father, who functions as something of an uncle to her, has remarried after the death of his wife, she calls it "filthy." It's a jovial rather than an accusatory moment, but it gives some idea how much of an impression tradition has made on her -- if it ultimately turns on her, in a sense she has only herself to blame for embracing it so fully before then.

The movie does not indeed suggest anything improper between the father and his daughter, but it has no problem couching rivalries for their mutual attentions in the terms of jealousy, almost like a spurned lover. The daughter in particular does not like to think of anyone taking care of her father but her, and considers other outsiders threats to the perfect kind of domestic duality they exist in. The father feels these jealousies as well, but he knows he must sacrifice his own wants for what he believes is the correct course of action for her.

It's truly splendid how Ozu can delve into these issues with such an instinctual understanding for emotional truth and such a keen awareness of personal psychology, yet never state what anyone is thinking or feeling with the heavy hand of melodrama. There's barely a raised voice or a character willing to firmly assert their feelings in this movie, yet it all comes across with crystal clarity, all the more effective for the fact that it's not shoved in our faces.

Theme is such a strong aspect of Ozu's films that other traditionally dominant aspects of filmmaking, such as technique and performance, almost take a backseat. Ozu's framing has a certain precision and his camerawork is technically accomplished, without ever drawing attention to themselves, and the performances he gets from his actors are more than competent without venturing to claim any particular share of the spotlight. It really feels as though Ozu and his collaborators are all on the same page in the mission to distill emotional truth.

Will I come back to Ozu later in this series? It certainly seems like a good idea. But after two months it is now time for me to get out of Japan. I'll probably travel north to South Korea in April, but what movie I plan to watch remains to be seen.

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