Truth be told, there are very few aspects that tangibly connect these two films. It is more a quirk of coincidence than anything else: both are being programmed by Northwest Film Forum, both are rather good and undeniably fascinating, and I happened to review both of them for one of my other writing gigs (at The Film Stage, with links to the respective pieces down below). But though one is a documentary-performance hybrid focused on a black woman, and the other is a drama about grief and the past visiting the present, the two movies represent no shortage of a certain kind of daring vision, one that, if a bit modest in its aims, then is still arresting nonetheless.
Take, for example, the disquieting and haunting diptych Harmonium, directed by Kôji Fukada. Straddling the lines between domestic drama and thriller in a manner that can reasonably be described as a cross between Ozu and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (and starring regular Kurosawa contributor Tadanobu Asano to boot), the movie gains its power from the skillfully woven relationships that arise when a figure (Asano) unexpectedly visits and moves in with an old friend’s family.
Fukada makes much out of appearances and little mannerisms that never quite feel telegraphed or played up. Though a sense of unease worms its way into the viewer from the very first shot of Asano clad in a spotless white shirt, the viewer can’t help but feel a bit disarmed by the veneer of politeness, even as it is shattered by a mid-film jump to eight years into the future of the family. The developments immediately preceding said ellipse are immensely upsetting, and the second half is one long slide into abject despair, but it is handled with the appropriate amount of distance and sensitivity all the same.
Bronx Gothic, in this light, could scarcely be a contrast. Directed – but not solely created – by Andrew Rossi, it follows the last tour of the solo performance piece of the same name, conceived and performed by Okwui Okpokwasili. Much of the film is given over to the lengthy, confrontational, and visibly strenuous performances, interspersed with interviews with Okpokwasili and various collaborators and audience talk-backs. This is no attempt at biography; aspects of Okpokwasili’s background are only brought up when necessary, and instead much of the cultural aspects that are woven into the piece arise rather naturally.
Bronx Gothic, the piece, is plainly semi-autobiographical, consisting largely of letters read aloud by the performer between her as an eleven-year-old and her more sexually active and experienced friend, and explores notions of maturity and race in a very specifically New York context. Perhaps expectedly, the piece and the film feel just as much about movement, about the extensive and elongated rhythmic dances that move just as deeply as the spoken moments – the piece begins with thirty minutes (not rendered fully in the film) of Okpokwasili dancing in a corner as the audience takes their seats. And yet, Rossi never loses sight of the human element, of Okpokwasili as something more than an avatar for black self-expression. The documentary looks to the future, not only for her as an artist, but her as a mother: the final scene is of unambiguous domestic bliss.