Camera Japan 2014 Review: FORMA Demands Attention

Associate Editor, Features; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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Camera Japan 2014 Review: FORMA Demands Attention
(This review won't scratch the surface, and that is fully intentional...)

At the start of Forma, you see one of its protagonists stick a pen in a cardboard box, making a small hole. She then puts the box on her head, and walks around her office, navigating just by her assumptions and the tiny bit she can see through the hole. And during Forma's 145 minute length, first-time director Sakamoto Ayumi demands her audience to do basically the same thing, and deliberately hides some obstacles, to confound you and make you stumble...

At first glance the story presented seems to be a simple one. During a chance encounter, Ayako meets Yukari, who she knows from high school. Yukari seems unhappy, stuck in life, and Ayako offers to help, even providing Yukari with a job at the same office she herself works at.

So far, so good.

But then Ayako starts to exhibit rather bossy behavior. Nothing too bad at first, but after a while it clearly starts to cross the boundaries of what would be considered appropriate. Pestering and privacy intrusions soon follow. Clearly, there are some issues from the past resurfacing, but what exactly is happening here?

Rather than telling a straight story or showing a straight mystery, Sakamoto Ayumi challenges viewers to notice details and draw their own conclusions. The first 90 minutes or so are a bit of a slog, where not much seems to happen. Everyone acts natural in a mundane plot, in a drab, colorless world. With its many long fly-on-the-wall takes, some entirely devoid of sound, the film even gets boring.

But after that point, people start behaving weird unexpectedly, and you can't help but wonder: did I miss something? Parts are shown again, either with sound or from a slightly different viewpoint. You spot faces in the background which were there before, but now you recognize who they are. Their presence has consequences for how it all plays out, forcing you to re-evaluate the way you previously filled the gaps.

Such an approach can be brilliant, or just plain unfair and annoying, but writer/director Sakamoto takes care to keep a balance. I never felt cheated, and while I suspect I didn't catch the whole story, I do think I was able to get enough of it. Repeat viewings may alter this perception again, of course, as this is that kind of film.

Forma-poster.jpgBest known as an assistant to Tsukamoto Shinya (of Tetsuo fame), Sakamoto Ayumi doesn't seem to be planning to follow in his footsteps. Before its screening at Camera Japan Rotterdam Festival, film expert Tom Mes introduced the film, and he stated that Sakamoto Ayumi feels she is more influenced by recent Iranian cinema and the likes of Michael Haneke. Which makes sense, as Forma very much reminded me of Haneke's Caché (Hidden).

The tagline on the poster for Forma translates to "145 minutes of opposition". What Sakamoto opposes is contemporary Japanese cinema, which is often created by committee with as little ambivalence or risk as possible, and where generic narratives are spoon-fed to the public, so nobody can fail to understand what's happening. Instead, Forma shows pieces and gaps, trusts its audience to be willing and clever enough to solve a puzzle, and rewards resilience with some wry humor, a few surprises, and a bleak outlook on humanity.

Sakamoto Ayumi has picked up an impressive number of awards worldwide with her first film. While I think it's maybe too soon to call her a revelation, she has certainly shown enough promise to warrant following, and it will be interesting to see what she'll do next.

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Camera JapanHanekeSakamoto AyumiAyumi SakamotoRyô NishiharaEmiko MatsuokaKen MitsuishiSeiji NozoeDrama
zulluluiOctober 9, 2014 8:09 PM

Saw this at the Berlinale and can't recommend it to anyone. In fact, I strongly advise against seeing it. Not only is it a slog for the first 90 minutes - which would be bad enough - but the whole way through. The story isn't only a simple one at first glance - it IS simple.

Shots are needlessly long and oftentimes entirely redundant - you could cut about 2/3 of the movie and not lose anything of substance. Take, for example, the scene of the father coming home. A static shot from inside the hallway in which he enters the door, takes off his shoes, and leaves into a room; the camera lingering on the empty hallway for another couple of seconds. It's not only those extra seconds that are pointless, but the whole scene - it doesn't drive the bare-bones plot, it doesn't reveal anything about the father character, and neither does it establish a particular mood. It literally just makes the film longer; and this film is littered with scenes like these.

I am, in fact, quite accustomed to slow-moving narratives, and don't have a problem with that - but in this case, there isn't even any narrative to move most of the time. The breaking point at which I gave up trying to get into the film was another static, badly lit and, frankly, plain ugly shot of a bedroom, accompanied by off-camera weeping for what felt like several minutes. I'm sorry, this is not "opposition", this is self-indulgent mockery of your audience. Consequently, quite a lot of people left the screening at various points, and while I sat through the whole thing, I can't fault anybody for deciding against it.

The film is emotionally void, thin in characterization, even thinner in plot, and oftentimes experimental just for the sake of it. As it stands, this could have made for an interesting short film, but at 145 minutes, it is an annoying test of patience which holds no rewards at the end. I'll take "created by committee" over this any time of the day, thank you very much.

Ard VijnOctober 10, 2014 5:03 AM

Thanks for chiming in, I appreciate your counter-review, in fact this film probably needs one. It definitely divided audiences at the Camera Japan festival as well (there were also a few walkouts there). FORMA is at times a deliberately frustrating film and I can't fault people for not liking it. And it's not about "getting it" or "understanding it", I think the aesthetic and form of the film will just not be to many people's taste.

For me, the gaps in the narrative created annoyance but also curiosity, which sometimes got satisfied, sometimes not. A lot of the shots seem useless and might be exactly that, but in other shots which seemed similarly useless I did discover details which turned out to change my viewpoint, or challenged assumptions I had made.

In the end I'm somewhat on the positive side of the middle about it. I refuse to step on the "brilliant masterpiece" bandwagon some people have started, but I enjoyed it too much to dismiss.

zulluluiOctober 10, 2014 8:16 AM

I agree that the film has interesting moments, but as I've said at the end, I see no excuse for it being as long as it is. I don't want to dismiss the film in its entirety, but given its frustrating nature, I feel people shouldn't walk into it blindly just from reading one point of view.

For me, a lot of the frustration stems from the synopsis in the Berlinale programme making this film sound far more interesting than it actually is. Sure, in the end everything comes down to personal taste, but given the reaction I have witnessed first-hand, I know I am not alone in my judgment, and I think it's fair to warn people that they will probably not enjoy it.

Anyways, thanks for your response and for being positive about it despite my harsh tone. Will comment again the next time I disagre with a review.

HaadOctober 11, 2014 8:37 AM

Shameless Haneke rip-off. There isn't one original idea in the whole 150 minutes.