Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Late Spring (Banshun) A Film by Yasujiro Ozu (1949)
Without the contribution of Yasujiro Ozu to the landscape of art cinema, a lot of the current trends in Asian cinema would not be the same. Filmmakers like Tsai-Ming Liang, Apichatphong Weerasethakul, and Abbas Kiarostami have taken great lessons from one of the most understated masters in the history of the medium. With Late Spring, Ozu proved to have just reached the pinnacle of his grip on the art, a level of talent that was maintained more or less for the rest of his career. The story is simple: Noriku, a women in her twenties, lives pleasantly with her widower father Shukichi until one day her Aunt and friend begin to suggest strongly that she should marry. Noriku does not have any interest in such a commitment, for she is more than content with the plain life she leads, resulting in a moral dilemma.
However, her dilemma is not portrayed with a heavy existential weight, much like most of Ozu's oeuvre. His films are easy-going, and transform the mundane into the sublime, one of the many transformations that are undergone in this picture. The film kicks off looking almost like any other Japanese bourgeois film you've ever seen: a scene with a group of women dressed eccentrically in a room with gorgeous interiors. Noriku's personality throughout the first 30 minutes left me feeling skeptical; she seemed like a very flat character because her cheek-to-cheek smile was unrealistically resilient. However, her depth is compiled gradually and believably. In the end, although the narrative is set directly across the globe from me, I felt completely at home with its themes. Ozu speaks volumes about the pressures of societal norms, the vicissitude of change, and the bittersweet symphony of familial love. As a film aesthete, what struck me on a gut level the most was Ozu's incredible focus on the structure of his cinematic language. His dedication to still shots is impressive throughout; only one pan is exhibited in the film and it was necessary. Often times he will place the camera on a dolly, but it nonetheless feels forever contained in its powerful prism of side-to-side immobility.
I can't think of another film that finds such a perfect harmony with its camerawork and the lifestyle of its characters; in a sense, Late Spring has a literal physical level to it. Because it is everyday Japanese tradition to sit on the floors in their homes, the camera often times looks as if it was placed directly on the ground. Interestingly, the film relates its physical positioning (grounded) to its plot's moralities (grounded/realistic). With another type of camera approach, this film would not be the same. Of course there are also what Roger Ebert calls the characteristic Ozu "pillow shots". Basically, these are simply photographic cutaways that immerse the viewer in the atmosphere of the film and allow for somewhat of a reflection period on what was just seen. Naturally, this places Ozu in the realm of a simplistic mood setter. However, this is one of his great strengths. He has the ability to encapsulate what is so holy about cinema: its utter simplicity and complexity working in symbiosis. When the final shots grace the screen, I defy any film connoisseur to watch closely and not be moved tremendously.