This was the beginning of a tantalizing series of consecutive days featuring premieres by some of the great East Asian filmmakers, beginning with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and continuing in the following days with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhangke, and the long-awaited new film by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Kurosawa returns to the Cannes and the Un Certain Regard section for the first time since 2008's Tokyo Sonata, a film that helped bridge a connection to a normal arthouse crowd for this director too often incorrectly pegged either as some kind of arty J-Horror filmmaker or, even worse, someone who was once good at making such films. Unsurprisingly, after the wacko minimalist version of Inception (with CGI dinosaur), Real, and a featurette comedy thriller shot in Vladivostok, the director returns to Cannes with a movie that among all his many films made for cinema and television, most closely resembles Tokyo Sonata.
Its unfortunately bland English title notwithstanding, Journey to the Shore is one of the few unquantifiable movies that premiered on the Croisette, a truly odd and quite lovely ghost story. The premise is ripe for a sentimental American remake: the missing, presumed dead husband (Tadanobu Asano) of young piano teacher Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) appears one night in her apartment, tells her he killed himself after finding out he was terribly ill and has returned because he has things he needs to do. Quickly getting used to the idea of her husband re-materialized in both spirit and body, Mizuki and he travel around the countryside spending time living with his old acquaintances, each of whom is haunted by someone—or are themselves dead and haunting. This episodic structure recalls Kurosawa's last excellent work, the miniseries Penance, and as in that film he here displays a incredibly subtle tonal range, segueing almost imperceptibly from intonations of melancholy arthouse to horror film, comedy, low-key rural drama, and sentimental romance. The overall sensibility is sweetly unsettling, a fitting result for this rare heir to Georges Franju (Eyes without a Face), especially during the eerily climatic resolution to each of the hauntings.
Kurosawa's gift for imbuing off-screen space with uncanny danger is sublimely used here, where his edits can make people disappear and re-appear in an instant—an old-school technique that is always fresh in his films—creating a world where the existence of people is supremely precarious. Like the wife, we never know when the husband may disappear, when she may wake up and find him gone, that it was all a dream or that his existence somehow obeyed a metaphysics obscure to the living. Traveling around the countryside, the film extends this idea further, that each family, each person is potentially being haunted for some past wrong. Shooting in CinemaScope for the first time ever, Kurosawa uses this additional wideness to stretch his lateral spatial arrangements, segmenting people away from each other so as to underscore that the distance between individuals is perhaps not just physical but moral, temporal, spiritual and metaphysical.
Yet the film is not consistently in the mode of style that is so striking of Kurosawa's signatures, those maze-like, often dilapidated interiors, the intrusion of natural elements like wind, light and plants from the outside world into supposedly safe, human spaces, and his beautifully fluid ghost tricks like slow-creep camera tracks, sudden reverse jump cuts, and so on. These are all in Journey to the Shore, but in equal measure to an emotional core found in Eri Fukatsu's trip. For a director known from his dramatic restraint to the point of cerebral distance, the range of emotions evoked by Fukatu, the unusual amount of conventional close-ups and exchanges, and a soundtrack that mixes some terrific Bernard Herrmann-style motifs with broadly sentimental orchestration push the film very close to becoming a straightforward, mushy tale of overcoming loss through vague metaphysics. Yet this is what opens the film up and allows it to fluidly shift in tones, unified by a beige, aged look and a deliberate tempo that matches the piano playing style of Fukatsu. "It should be joyous," a woman complains about her measured piano technique, and no doubt many will wish the same from Journey to the Shore, but slowing his movie down allows Kurosawa to draw out the strange, the lovely, and the unresolved the lays behind every one.
Joachim Trier's Louder than Bombs, the English language, American-set debut for the Norwegian director (by way of Denmark) of Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, features a small bounty of character observations, which I would like to make a partial list of here:
1. The evocation of brotherhood separated by the distance between high school (Devin Druid) and college graduate (Jesse Eisenberg), precise in its combination of false chumminess, bonds over talking about parents, the desire to sympathize but also patronize, and the affection and mockery.
2. The force of distain a child can feel for his or her parent (Gabriel Byrne), told through burning, squinted eyes, a hard shell of babyfaced impassiveness, and the script and director's understanding of the kinds of parental behavior that only deepens the groove of a teen's temporary contempt and hatred.
3. A particular kind of parent's discretion to knock on the door of his children's rooms before entering—but also the kind of parent who proceeds to enter without waiting for a response, every single time.
4. The off-hand way Devin Druid shows his character's proficiency using the computer in his bedroom, the instant fluidity of closing a video game and opening a Word document, the kind of unthinking intuitive interfacing that would prompt a parent to beg "one more time, but slower!" But here is just something one notices in the frame—or not.
5. A young teenager, drunk and walking home from a party, stops to squat and pee in a stranger's driveway. "No peeking..." she nicely warns the introverted boy who walked her, the long out of reach object of his desire, home. "...Okay a little peeking...!" she teasingly finishes, half to herself. Her urine runs down the driveway, hits the boy's shoe, and diverts in another direction.
Louder Than Bomb's unobtrusive style, favoring chest-high medium shots with a loose camera able to follow characters around in space but always, above all, emphasizing their faces and emotions, suggests that the director's move to American cinema may be a stepping stone to helming high-brow American television. His interests in drama (but not melodrama) bound by characters, a nuanced dramaturgy exploring individual psychology and how it plays into conventional social relationships, here of an unresolved family still grieving over the death of its matriarch (Isabelle Huppert), would, I feel, lose little moving to a small screen. Instead, I think Joachim Trier would invest that medium with a more observant, rather than expository and repetitive, dynamic, which is found in this film and makes it satisfying, but ultimately hampers Louder than Bombs from stepping up to the full force of its drama on the big screen.