Beginning with a shot out of the canon, a small Japanese kitchen, mother and daughter at work, receding into the distance on the left side of the screen are a series of rectangular spaces, the right angles of doorways leading to doorways, director Kore-eda Hirozaku states his intention to work in the mines first exploited by Yasujiro Ozu in a series of domestic comedies and dramas from the 1930s through the 1960s. This seems to be Kore-eda’s increasingly preferred mode of work, it’s been a long time since the minimalist fantasy of Afterlife, or even the bizarre Doona Bae vehicle Air Doll (in which the one of the great actresses working today plays a sentient sex doll who learns what it means to be human, and to kill). Since that film, Kore-eda has been following the vein of his 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, with a handful of films about families told in a patient, superficially Ozuvian style (no director has ever made a film completely in Ozu’s style: his editing and framing system is simply too idiosyncratic, most, like Kore-eda, recall the shapes of his sets and seek to recreate the pace of his movies with longer shot lengths). If this period of his work is as strong as After the Storm, I for one am content to let Kore-eda keep churning out these movies indefinitely.
Hiroshi Abe plays an acclaimed writer who, blocked in the creation of his second novel and succumbing to his gambling addiction, is working as a shady private investigator. He’s recently divorced and trying to keep the affection of his young son and win his wife back as she moves on to another man. The old woman in the opening scene is his mother, played by Kirin Kiki, who was exceptional as the matriarch in Still Walking and just as good here, the woman was his sister, like him a mooch and a bit of a failure. Hanging over everything is their recently deceased father, a compulsive gambler, an unliterary man who nonetheless took great pride in his penmanship. The various threads weave together during the eponymous storm, the latest in an unusually large number of typhoons (I write in the midst of a typhoon here in Tacoma) to hit Japan that year. After the storm, things aren’t resolved, as they can’t ever be in movies like this, where the recognition of irresolvability is always the resolution, but the air is a little cleaner.
At the center of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister is a house, and in the garden of the house is a plum tree. It is an old tree; generations of the family have seen it blossom and bear fruit, season by season. It is a tree at the heart of a house tradition, too, the making, storing, and consuming of umeshu, a sweet and sour green plum liqueur that is allowed to ripen to perfection over nine months beneath the floorboards. The family members prick their initials into the plums and these sit, soaking, as uniquely individual parts of the collective brew.
A family. A messy, powerful organism and a thing that Kore-eda, over the course of his film career, has continued to explore and expose, its raw bitternesses and its loving tendernesses. In earlier films, like Nobody Knows, heartbreak and tragedy are the centers of feeling; in more recent films, like I Wish, buoyant, infectious hope permeates. Our Little Sister tends towards the warmth of these latter films, and like the joyous, crucial moment of the speeding train in I Wish, there is a similarly ebullient defining moment in Our Little Sister, where two children on a bike fly through an avenue of blooming cherries.
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Almost halfway through the marathon that is the Seattle International Film Festival, we take a break to talk about some of the films we’ve seen so far. Movies discussed include: Chimes at Midnight, Sunset Song, Love & Friendship, Long Way North, Our Little Sister, Alone, The Island Funeral, Concerto, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Cameraperson, Women He’s Undressed, In a Valley of Violence, The Final Master, Lo and Behold, The Lure, Tiny, The Seasons in Quincy and A Scandal in Paris.
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The woman in The Island Funeral takes a trip with her brother, not her sister.
The Seasons in Quincy starts in the winter and ends in the autumn, not summer, because that’s how seasons work.
Our Little Sister tracks a gentle arc, where drama develops through quotidian domesticity, gradually deepening emotion, small personal revelations. Hirokazu Kore-eda dares, in an age of superheroes, to believe audiences want to see something as simple as sisters sharing a series of meals, making family recipes, scratching a height measurement in a door-frame. He trusts these things carry emotional weight that will wrap viewers into the film’s world and hold them. In this slow accumulation of delicate specificity, tastes, and textures, is a gift: a celebration of the very fabric of being.
Our Little Sister screens for the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival at SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 21 and May 22. (Note: Full review to be published when Our Little Sister opens for its Seattle theatrical run in July.)