Like a flowing river

Moonlight Shadow, released in Japan on September 10, was chosen to be part of the Nippon Cinema Now selection at the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival, TIFF.

Moonlight Shadow Review

The sound of a bell lingers in my ear. It all started with that bell. This sound represented every single second I spent with Hitoshi. Every single day and night ! Sunny, rainy, cloudy and snowy days. The films we watched together, the books we read. The fights we had, our laughter and tears...” Before a tape recorder, a young woman spells out her grief. This touching scene is the opening sequence of the film; it will be repeated later on, complete and with an even stronger emotional load.

This young woman is Satsuki. The love of her life was killed in a car accident. With him was Yumiko, the girlfriend of Hiiragi, Hitoshi‘s younger brother, who also lost her life. Hiiragi wears Yumiko’s school uniform for mourning. For Satsuki, the process of healing is to run around breathlessly. She barely eats and is losing weight in a frightening way. She looks exhausted. One day, from the bridge where Satsuki and Hitoshi liked to meet, she sees a strange woman all dressed in black. She puts her finger to her lips as if to say ‘shhh’, an invitation to silence, to calm and to mystery.

Malaysian director Edmund Yeo‘s adaptation of Banana Yoshimoto‘s famous short story lives up to its promise. Kong Pahurak‘s photography is superb and the lights enhance the emotions. The soundtrack, composed by Aaken/Ton That An, has the same function, it delicately accompanies the film without intruding. While taking certain liberties in the construction of the narrative and in the introduction or development of secondary characters, the director conveys the very essence of the original work, its message and its tone: mourning, the inevitable passage of time, love and bitter-sweet humor. …

A River Runs Through It. The theme of water, of the river, has often been at the heart of Edmund Yeo‘s films, notably in Malu and The River of Exploding Durians. With Moonlight Shadow, he uses the water-river theme as both a transposition and an enhancement of Time in Yoshimoto‘s work. Under the city, there are springs and underground rivers, on the surface, as observation points, wells that lead to astute and beautiful camera shots. The water which flows like time, cruel and inescapable, is also there in the tears, Hiragii’s and Satsuki’s, a necessary flow to get closer to those who died and therefore are moving away, with the passing of time and the flow of water…

Moonlight Shadow also plays on contrast, the film is roughly divided into two parts of unequal length. The first part revolves around the good memories of happy days and it is filled with fantasy and bright colors. Happiness is obvious in Satsuki’s clothes, the decoration in her room, up to the little blue locks in her hair. Then comes an abrupt and radical change of atmosphere -and looks- in the second part: thin and weakened, Satsuki is tortured by pain and suffering.

Good perfs from the ensemble cast. First big role for Himi Sato (the son of actor Tadanobu Asano and singer Chara) who is funny, convincing and touching as Hiiragi. Just like in the novel, we don’t “see” HItoshi (Hio Miyazawa) and Yumiko (Nana Nakahara) that much, once the phase of happy memories is over, the dead leave the place to those in grief, to the surviving ones who strive to move forward.

With Urara (actress Asami Usuda) director Edmund Yeo definitely takes a few liberties with the text and in my opinion this is one of the very original features of the film. In the novella Urara is just a strange encounter and in a way a messenger, a vehicle towards the supernatural, in the movie she becomes a surrealistic acting force. If Satsuki is the moving heart of Moonlight Shadow, Urara is the core of the supernatural.

No one knows where she comes from, nor where she disappears to, but it doesn’t matter, a bit like Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s ‘ghosts’, she represents and embodies the intrusion of the surreal in the real world. She listens, records voices, stories, she soothes and gently leads the protagonists towards the mystery, when after a full moon night, the living will be able to meet the dead, a phenomenon that can only happen once a century. A benevolent and tutelary figure, Urara will lead Satsuki out of the deadlock, out of the limbos of pain…

And then comes the lead actress, Satsuki, sorry, Nana Komatsu. This was already obvious in Edmund Yeo‘s previous works (especially Malu), but there is more to the expression of feelings and emotions than just words. Eyes, body language, the face and its subtle variations, what a wise choice it was to have entrusted this mission to Nana Komatsu. The new generation of Japanese actresses is packed full of talents but she is definitely the one who best embodies an ‘old school’ approach to acting.

Old School? I believe Martin Scorsese provided the best definition while evoking the legendary and magnificent Gene Tierney, he said in substance: ‘she got in, did not say a word, her stare just scanned everything and with each movement came a new nuance, everything was said…’ something like that. This ‘something’ Nana Komatsu has always had it, in almost every film in which she has personified a character. With Moonlight Shadow, Edmund Yeo gave her the opportunity to exploit this vein, to use her craft, with a formidable magnitude.

Moonlight Shadow is no doubt an art film, ideal for those who want and know how to watch and listen, and appreciate nuance. And clearly the film is not only accessible it is quite remote from the esotericism or even the pretentiousness that unfortunately characterizes many independent works from the Art House circuit.

Once you have decided to enter the film and let yourself be guided, it’s an easy journey. The lights, the excellent cinematography, the perfect adequacy between the scenes and the soundtrack are an enchantment and contribute to a great film watching experience. It is fine then to accompany Satsuki/Nana Komatsu to the end of grief, beyond mourning, when she tells us:

I can’t stay here any longer. Time passes and my feet keep moving. I can’t stop the flow of time, there’s nothing I can do. I’m going. One caravan ends and the next begins…

In spite of the sadness and the darkness, Moonlight Shadow is somehow a sweet film. And in the end, in a subtle way, a bit of red color, like life that takes over, finally imposes itself on the viewer.

on the set pictures (official booklet)

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