Directed by Carlos Reygadas. Starring Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores, Yolanda Villa, Martín Serrano. (2002, NR, 122 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 16, 2003
First-time Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas is turning heads with his impressive debut feature, Japón. Following an Austin premiere during the Cine Las Americas film festival last month, Japón is now opening here for a one-theatre run. The film brims with Reygadas’ personal stamp; he’s listed as writer, director, and producer. This makes Japón a strikingly individualistic work and also one that wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. The most obvious of these is Abbas Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, a film about a man journeying through modern Iran searching for someone to help him commit suicide. Japón, too, is about a suicidal man (Ferretis). This middle-aged character is given no name as he travels from the bustling city to the remote countryside hovel of an older peasant woman, conveniently named Ascen (Flores), while trying to find the serenity, courage, or conviction to kill himself. Who knows what's going through his mind? Like its title – Japón has nothing to do with Japan in any physical sense – Reygadas’ film is a cryptic, hermetic affair, more like a Zen koan than a popcorn pusher. Or maybe it’s an homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Filmed in 16mm widescreen, the film is built on long, slow takes and circular pans that feel as though they might have flowed directly from some Tarkovsky film. The sense of the remote rural surroundings is always palpable. The dirt, stones, animals, sounds, craggy mountains, and sweat are given their due, and in this almost lies the movie’s plot. As the Man, a clear Jesus figure who sleeps in Ascen’s barn, experiences life in this remote place, a sense of body, need, and desire arises in him. Death and Eros have been foreshadowed in the animal life that’s so pungent and ever-present in this place. From the film’s opening sequence, in which the Man is asked to snap the head off a fallen bird to the fornicating horses and a slaughtered hog, Japón lets us know that this is a story about the inhabitants of the animal kingdom. Raygadas’ actors are all non-professionals, but this too fits with the movie’s aesthetic. The actors’ faces are all pocked from their battles with life. They look not unlike the Italian peasants of Pasolini’s historical pageants or Buñuel’s Los Olvidados. Choirlike music by Bach, Shostakovich, and others often swells on the soundtrack along with crowing roosters and squealing pigs. What it all adds up to, ultimately, is something of a mystery to me, but so too are many of the films Reygadas so clearly admires. The one thing that is clear from Japón is that a major new visual stylist has hit the screen and that Reygadas’ first film represents the beginning of an auspicious career.