The remarkable Japanese director Ando Momoko expands her cinematic canvas considerably with her second feature, 0.5mm, a major highlight of this year's Japan Cuts festival.
It's a deceptively small film that tackles big subjects, an intimate film with an epic three hour and 18 minute length. Ando probes Japan's historical, social and emotional psyche with clinical precision, doing it through a decidedly odd protagonist, brilliantly portrayed by Ando Sakura, the director's sister. 0.5mm, adapted from the director's own novel, is a road movie of sorts, traversing its landscape in ways that are never less than deeply compelling, and offering many moments that prove to be one profound epiphany after another. It's a quiet stunner that subtly insinuates itself into your consciousness and refuses to leave you, much like Ando Sakura's character does with others in the film.
0.5mm opens with a glimpse into the typical workaday life of Sawa (Ando Sakura), a young woman who works as a caregiver for the elderly. With the sort of intimate detail and exquisite sensitivity that is a hallmark of the film as a whole, this scene depicts the many tasks involved in caring for someone who can no longer care for himself. We witness Sawa suctioning saliva out of an old man's mouth, cleaning him, changing his diaper, and dressing him. Sawa performs these actions with the consummate professionalism and the great care that comes from years of experience.
The daughter of the old man Sawa is caring for then comes to her with a very unusual request. The old man is dying, and his daughter wants to fulfill his last request. The old man, according to his daughter, "misses his mommy's breasts" and cries for her at night. The daughter asks Sawa to sleep next to him in the same bed, not for sex, but as a substitute for his missing mother. Sawa, with not much hesitation, agrees to do it, asking the daughter not to tell her agency, since such a thing is well beyond regulations.
Sawa comes to the house on the night when she is to sleep with the old man, where the daughter hands her a red dress to wear that the old man likes. When she lies down with the old man, he turns out to be much more active and invasive than his daughter promised. He licks her face and grabs at her, and when Sawa can no longer stand this, she struggles to get away from him. During the scuffle, a space heater in the bedroom gets knocked over, and starts a fire. Sawa manages to escape the blaze, but in the aftermath, after some brief questioning by the police, she loses her job and is kicked out of her dorm room.
Now wandering the streets with very little savings and not much more than the clothes on her back, she comes across an old man about to go into a karaoke club. She impulsively goes in and accompanies the old man, explaining to him that the club prefers couple, and she is there to prevent him from getting ripped off. The old man, reluctant to have her with him at first, soon warms to her, and they quickly have a fun night singing karaoke.
This begins a succession of encounters Sawa has with older men, which take up the bulk of the film's running time. These encounters are by turns funny, poignant, and disturbing, but they all reveal the grand themes that Ando very ambitiously, and overwhelmingly successfully, tackle in the course of this movie. First, Sawa comes across an old man puncturing bicycle tires in a shopping mall parking lot. Threatening to report the man to the police, she insinuates herself into his life, staying at his house, and intervening to save him from being fleeced by a man who tries to get the old man to invest in a pyramid scheme.
After having to leave that old man - and incidentally gaining a car in the process - she comes across another man, whom she catches trying to steal an erotic photography book from a bookstore. She threatens to tell the police, and expose him to the community at large as a pervert. This way, she gains entrance to his home, where he lives with his daughter and his bedridden wife, suffering from dementia. Sawa is able to use her caretaking skills to help out with caring for the old man's wife.
But when conflicts with the daughter compel her to leave that place, Sawa sets out on the road again. She is given a tape addressed to her by the old man, a naval veteran who recorded a confession/manifesto lamenting Japanese war crimes and the state of Japan today. The film takes its title from a key statement of this recording.
Finally, Sawa encounters an old man (Emoto Akira), far less affluent than the other three men Sawa has been with, who collects cans near a shipyard and lives with his mute son in an unfurnished place. They may be squatting in an abandoned house, and this old man turns out to be rather abusive toward his son. This encounter connects in a key way to her old job, and brings everything full circle.
Ando Momoko has created one of the most memorable cinema experiences of this year, and proves herself a major talent, even more so than in her debut film, the manga-adapted lesbian romance Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2009). 0.5mm is mostly in a darkly comedic mode, with classical music pieces forming an ironic sonic counterpoint to many of the scenes. It's somewhat debatable whether the film's considerable length is actually necessary, but it does lend heft to the major themes, as well as give Ando the freedom to let scenes play long, and allow us to more deeply experience and appreciate the import of Sawa's encounters with the other characters.
Ando's sharp critiques of the legacies of Japan's past, as well as the patriarchal structures that remain in place, come through quite forcefully here. Most of the old men Sawa encounters regard her as a sex object, either to furtively pine for in secret, or outright attempt to take advantage of. Sawa is quite aware of this, and she countenances this as much as she can until she has no choice but to fight back.
Sawa, as embodied by Ando Sakura's bold, charismatic performance, is quite a fascinating character. She is clearly not a person that would be considered normal by society's standards, but it would absolutely be a mistake to brand her as mentally ill or unstable. In fact, she proves to be far more lucid and perceptive about the world she lives in than most.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this character is that, even at the end of the long journey we take with her, there is still much about her that is left unexplained. The fact that Sawa still remains largely a mystery up until the end may frustrate some who like everything spelled out, but to my mind, this helps to elevate her far above being just some quirky character. Instead, she becomes a potent symbol of Japan's collective (un)consciousness, a living reminder of the historical evils and tragedies that Japan largely has yet to fully come to terms with.
As Japan's current government seems to wish to go back to the nation's old militant and imperial past, it may not be too much of a stretch to regard 0.5mm as, at least in part, as a protest against this trend. As such, this film would not be simply a superior example of the great independent cinema Japan has been producing in recent years, but also a valuable public service.
0.5mm will receive its world premiere as the centerpiece presentation of this year's Japan Cuts festival. It screens July 17, 6:30pm at Japan Society; director Ando Momoko will appear via streaming video for a Q&A following the film. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Japan Society's website.