Monday, January 19, 2009
Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna) A Film by Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964)
The running collaboration between novelist Kôbô Abe and artist/filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara may have been forgotten for years, but Criterion's wonderful box-set release of the three films suggests a fusion as mysterious and fruitful as that of Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krasnahorkai. Listed as Tarkovsky's tenth favorite film, Woman in the Dunes is a bristling psycho-sexual allegory that holds up extremely well today, and almost seems to predate some of the erotic, surreal worlds of David Lynch. The film showcases Teshigahara's fine arts background as he stunningly adds aesthetic and philosophical heft to a rather simplistic narrative taking place entirely within a small village in the desert.
An entomologist - in hopes of getting his name in an encyclopedia for some canonical finding - scrounges the desert by the sea in the opening frames, digging for insects. These scenes establish some of the thematic groundwork for the film: the protagonist recites in narration a musing on man's formalized place in society (with cards, ID's, etc.) and is seen decked out with carrying bags and devices, revealing him as a logical thinker, contrary to the naturalists living in the desert village; the camera also gets right up in the environment's grill multiple times, the micro close-ups of both sand grains and insects foreshadowing the similar shots of dirtied human skin to come, which seem an attempt to make union of landscape and subject. The entomologist misses his bus back to Tokyo (which is familiarized in the audio accompanying the opening credits) and is sent by some villagers to a widow's cabin in a pit of sand to stay a night. However, he finds in the morning that the rope ladder used to descend into the pit was removed, and that he is only a prisoner abducted to assist the woman's daily labor. The woman lives under less than ideal situations, forced into accepting her harsh situation of shoveling sand to avoid burial and to help the villagers who sell her salty sand illegally to city workers. The entomologist finds his abduction was no first for the village, as it is a necessary means of survival.
Woman in the Dunes is about how the entomologist's identity - at first plagued by disbelief and anger - transforms into that of the woman he eventually comes to terms with. He realizes that he must accept his gloomy fate and find communion in a simple discovery. Teshigahara is masterful in his development of the two main characters and in his knack for reflecting their conundrums through the ever-changing atmosphere. Multiple times he uses shots of the shifting sands to signal horrific, phallic, or existential meanings. Although the film is set up like a bizarre thriller (serviced supremely by Tôru Takemitsu's chilling score marked by orchestral thumps and shrieks), it focuses more heavily on the characters than it does on the potentially spooky situation. Rather than being impermanently shocking, surreal sequences - such as when the sand pit is converted to a stage as the masked townspeople bang drums as in an ancient ritual and egg on a sexual moment between the entomologist and the widow - resonate with haunting multivalence, assuring Woman in the Dunes' place as an essential art-house puzzle.