Breathtaking is perhaps the best word to describe Love Exposure director Sono Sion's latest, The Land Of Hope. It is a film that takes audiences on a long and draining but ultimately very rewarding journey, with two families torn apart after a massive earthquake in rural Japan causes the local nuclear plant to explode. It is clear that the intimate story, written by Sono himself, has been inspired by real life events.
The story takes place in the fictional prefecture of Nagashima (which is a combination of 'Nagasaki' and 'Hiroshima'), described in the film as 'home of the famous nuclear plant'. The Onos and the Suzukis are local farmers whose lives are changed forever when disaster forces the evacuation of residents who live within the 20km radius of the plant, and that includes the Suzuki family but not the Onos, who live just outside the danger zone. "You just have to be patient," the government officials in full protective suits tell the confused residents.
The central focus of the film is the Ono family. The father Yasuhiko looks after his demented wife Chieko, and they live with their son Yoichi and his wife Izumi. These are ordinary people who care deeply for each other. Following the nuclear explosion, the elderly couple decides to stay behind, while Yoichi reluctantly leaves his home of 30 years with Izumi. As viewers learn more about these characters, they will find themselves caring more and more about them and their fates, as well as feeling their anxiety, paranoia and heartbreaks.
The Suzuki family, on the other hand, is given far less emphasis and their story at times feels like a distraction from the film's main story. The adventure of the younger couple in this family does allow glimpses into what has become a ghost town after the disasters, and the eerie scene where two ghostly kids tell them to go forward "one step at a time" reinforces the central theme of the film, which is hope. The 2 hour 15 minute running time feels a touch long, and one cannot help but wonder if the film would have benefited from focusing on only one family.
Beautifully shot by director of photography Miki Shigenori, the film has a poetic beauty while the documentary-style of filming gives it a strong sense of realism. Sono seems to have a lot to say about today's Japanese society and is not afraid to say it. There are scenes portraying the Japanese discriminating against their own people who have been exposed to radiation, and others that criticize the incompetence of the authorities in handling the crises. There is also a clear dislike of the use of nuclear power as energy source, and the knowledge that everything has been contaminated by radiation is simply terrifying. It is ironic that Izumi, who is said to have radiophobia, is the only one who is taking actions to protect her family, while everyone around her just seems ignorant of the danger.
The cast is excellent and the performances are universally fantastic. The standouts are veteran actor Natsuyagi Isao (who sadly passed away on May 11 this year) as Yasuhiko, a role that deservedly won him Best Actor at Mainichi Film Concours; and Otani Naoko as his demented wife. It is worth mentioning that some of the film's best scenes are without dialogue, such as the scene of a traditional dance performed by Natsuyagi and Otani.
Since his 4-hour masterpiece Love Exposure, Sono Sion has had a string of hits including Cold Fish, Guilty of Romance and another post-disaster flick Himizu. While Love Exposure remains undoubtedly his most amazing film to date, it is The Land Of Hope that demonstrates he has developed the level of maturity and sensitivity seen only in truly great directors. This is a breathtakingly beautiful, powerful and unforgettable film.
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