**Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad guest-reviews Yoji Yamada's Kabei, which she caught at the 58th Berlinale this year. She was there as a jury member for the Generations section, the category in which her Mukhsin won two prizes last year.
Yasmin has always emphasised the importance of human emotion in storytelling, and here's her personal take on Yamada's latest, which she says can soften the heart of even the most hardened cinephile.**
It’s a funny business, reviewing movies. These days when “internalized emotions” and “emotional detachment” are favored over straightforward sentimentality, it must be hard to stay faithful to your true feelings.
Soon after completing jury duties at the 58th Berlinale, I managed to catch Yoji Yamada’s Kabei.
After the screening, I watched folks dreamily amble out of the theatre hall, watery-eyed, men, women, and reviewers alike. Even the director of the Berlinale, obviously a hardened viewer of cinema, confessed to having been caught unawares and found himself crying three quarter’s way into this unashamedly sentimental experience.
But what really surprised me were the reviews that came after. Despite being ineffably moved by the film, many reviewers chose to be tepid and emotionally non-committal in their writing. Apparently, post weeping, they had put on their “thinking cap”, and consequently, missed out on what I felt was the genius about Kabei.
Allow me to explain.
Set in pre-war Japan, the story of Kabei revolves around one writer’s family, and their fate therein, after he is held in jail for what was described as “thought crimes” against the Imperial will. Through a series of protracted emotional scenes, Yamada gets us familiar with the man, his loyal wife and two daughters, as well as three side characters -- the man’s pretty young sister, a bumbling ex-student, and a cad of an uncle – all come to help the family cope with their plight, in the absence of the man of the house.
The story moves along at a slow albeit steady pace, and heartbreaks occur at precisely the moments everyone is able to predict. This of course makes it near impossible for anyone in the audience to get too emotionally distraught by any dramatic event.
In other words, although you learn to love the family and their helpers, and sympathise with their unfortunate situation, you get so lulled by the certainty of the plot that you find yourself expecting a particular kind of ending.
Two hours into the film (don’t worry, Yamada provides the viewer with sufficient moments of gravity and levity to tide you along), he slaps you with what I can only describe as “the sting”. All that you have assumed to be what the story was about -- an innocent man wrenched from his faithful wife and daughters – now suddenly points to one of the family helpers. Someone you have hitherto taken for granted is now thrown into an unexpected twist of fate.
At this point, something curious happened in the theatre I was in. Everyone started sobbing with little or no inhibition.
“My word!” I muttered under my breath. It struck me then that “Kabei”, in the final analysis, was more than a film about a family torn apart by an empire on the verge of war. It was, in fact, a cunning examination of one common human foible: How little we cared about the secret feelings of people who are closest to us.
Now, the most common criticism made about the film was that it was technically solid, but lacked innovation. That’s what happens when reviewers put on their proverbial thinking cap, I guess. With Kabei, I believe Yoji Yamada knew exactly what trick he was going to employ to touch on one unique aspect of humanity. A wicked old trick he so seamlessly applied in the Tora-san series, and later, in Tasogare Sebei.
After lulling the audience into a sort of narrative comfort zone, he throws us into a realm of emotions rarely explored in cinema.
This, to me, is the most effective cinematic tool of all. One which avoids detection, but affects you deeply. And proof of its effectiveness was a thousand wet pieces of Kleenex, thrown into a litterbin just outside of that thousand-seater cinema hall.
Now if only some reviewers would resist being so caught up with being smart that they forget what cinema is really about. Human emotions. Pure and simple.