Art House Salad
By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic
Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
IFC Films. 114 min. Not rated.
“Still Walking,” the exceptionally intimate and solemn new film from Japanese minimalist Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows”), takes place almost entirely inside of a house – a hilltop cottage in Japan owned by an old couple with grown children. And in that house, the key location is the kitchen, where food is prepared and eaten by the matriarch and her family throughout the one day that makes up most of the movie's running time. Early on, as I watched the mother and her daughter peel carrots and salt soybeans before the other family members arrived, I realized that I'd never really seen Asian cooking in a domestic setting – or, at least, not with such prominence. The universality of food is what Kore-eda uses, not only to seduce the viewer, but to give his characters common ground. In its soft-spoken way, “Still Walking” is the Japanese answer to “Soul Food”: no matter what kind of bloodline drama is going down, everyone can at least agree that the corn bread – or, in this case, corn cake – tastes great.
Not that the drama is ever explicitly dramatic, and not at all that this movie is simply about sushi and tempura (though both traditional Japanese dishes are eaten – and, even more deliciously, discussed in depth – before the aforementioned day is out). The family has gathered for their annual commemoration of the death of Junpei, the eldest son who drowned 12 years ago while rescuing a neighborhood kid. The father (Yoshio Harada), a retired physician, is cantankerous and anti-social: while others gather in the kitchen, he retreats to his office or outdoors, and Kore-eda repeatedly makes the distance palpable by filming him from inside the home looking out. The mother (Kirin Kiki), however, seems chipper and content, for she is a woman who knows her role and knows when and how to conceal her pain. The surviving son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), is dreading the event: he doesn't get along with his father, who doesn't approve of Ryota's employment choices, or of his new wife, a widow with a little boy. There's also Ryota's sister, the most neutral member of the family who's sentimental, but takes things in stride.
As the movie progresses (which is a slow and steady process, to be sure), it becomes increasingly more interesting, as layers are peeled back and truths are revealed with a clever nonchalance. In a fine, unpredictable performance by Kiki, the mother, specifically, is fascinating: she is wholly devoted as a wife, yet she is not above indirectly airing out her husband's mistakes in the presence of guests. And her instincts and devotions as a mother – perhaps the most personal things a woman can have – are revealed to be quite fierce, indeed. Such is one of the better pleasures of “Still Walking”: you think you have all of these characters pegged, then some of them pull the rug out from under you. And there is the conveyance of a deep, believable understanding among these people. I'm having a hard time ignoring my thought that some of the dialogue and delivery was a touch contrived, but the characters certainly have the worn-in feel of family. The warmth of their relationships – even the one between Ryota and his father – enhances Kore-eda's tone, which I'll describe as comfortably claustrophobic. We are packed tightly in this home with these people and their troubles, and we rarely ever leave, but, eventually, we find that we don't want to.
Which may account for why the few departures from the house are so striking and vivid. The images of beaches, and trains, and roads, and buildings, and cemeteries are made remarkable because they're rare. (Also rare is composer Gonchichi's simple string soundtrack, which tends to be reserved for the outdoor portions.) Kore-eda manages to create a comfort zone so comfortable that even the sky feels new again when we exit. There's one scene set in a room with a large open window, through which we are given our first glimpse of the home's beautiful view from the hilltop. In that moment – which is early, long before the film nears its melancholic, but pretty, conclusion – a small part of me hoped that the camera would go out and explore what was beyond. But, then, dinner had not yet been served, and there was no way I was going to miss that.
4 stars (out of 5)
"Still Walking" is now playing at the Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphia and is also available via Cable OnDemand.