Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking opens with two generations of a family, an elderly mother and her adult daughter, peeling vegetables for dinner. The father of the family walks past them towards the door. The daughter, seeing this, asks him to buy milk at the local store, but he ignores her and carries on. Sensing her daughter's agitation, her mother explains that "he doesn't want the neighbours to see him with a shopping bag. Even at his age, he wants to be called 'Doctor'."

A sense of keeping up appearances is the cause of most, if not all of the long-held issues within this family, and each one is aired during the 24 hours they are all gathered together in the same house, commemorating the death of the first born son fifteen years earlier. The middle son, an art restorer married to a widowed mother of one, barely speaks to his father, who disapproves of his life choices; the daughter tries to convince her mother that she and her loud family should move in to their house, while her mother wants to live a peaceful life but can't bring herself to mention it; and the son's wife feels as if she and her child are being treated as guests and not as part of the family, just because she and her husband haven't had children of their own yet.

Much of this drama is left to bubble under the surface, and Kore-eda's presence is similarly muted, unobtrusively observing the minutiae of the family's interactions as they spend time with each other. He tends to compose his shots from the corners of rooms, generally using a table as a focal point, and only cutting to close-ups to accentuate the gestures of his characters. During one particularly emotional moment around the table, the family listen to the parents' "special, romantic song" that the father doesn't remember but the mother listens to every day. Kore-eda cuts from a wide shot of the table to successive close-ups of each person as the song plays: the mother sings along, her husband makes a point of wolfing down his food, and their son and daughter-in-law both look around anxiously, seemingly the only two people in the room aware of the moment's awkwardness; their step-grandson struggles to contain his laughter.

Kore-eda's main strength as a director is how keenly attuned he is to natural behaviour, and as these characters talk around their individual issues for the sake of the family, his unassuming style allows his actors space to deliver the nuanced performances required to make it work. At one point, the family takes a photograph together, and the only person who takes it seriously is the son's wife, who smiles steadfastly at the camera as everybody else looks disinterested. Still Walking is a film of small, revealing moments such as these, but from them Kore-eda has crafted a profoundly moving portrait of a family splintered by tragedy, just as it exists in the world, with all the complexities and dysfunction that comes with that.

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