Saturday, April 1, 2017

Greetings from Fukushima (Grüsse aus Fukushima)

GREETINGS FROM FUKUSHIMA (Grüsse aus Fukushima)              B+            
aka:  Fukushima, Mon Amour
Germany  (106 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Doris Dörrie                Official Facebook

I often fall into a state of panic when I think about the direction my life is taking.
Am I spending my life with the right person?
Do I have the right job?  Do I look right?
Do I earn enough money?
Am I making enough of my life?  Am I happy?  Should I live differently?
And so on and so on.
A permanent flood of questions crashing over me and filling me with anxiety.
I can‘t help but worry all the time.
What if?  What if I lost everything I care for?
How far might I fall?
How do I start over?

—Marie (Rosalie Thomass)

In the manner of Rossellini’s GERMANY, YEAR ZERO (1948), a neorealist film shot in the bombed out ruins of Berlin after the war, revealing the utter destruction, causing such a public outrage after the initial screening that it was not shown again in Germany for another 25 years, and Kiarostami’s AND LIFE GOES ON…(1992), another superb film shot in the rubble of the 1990 Koker earthquake in northern Iran that killed some 50,000 people, a wrenching drama that shows the resiliency of people who have lost everything, German director Dörrie brought a small camera crew revealing similar devastation affecting the Fukushima district in Japan.  On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake off the eastern Japanese coast lasting 150 seconds created a tsunami with 15 meter tidal waves causing interior flooding that destroyed 260 coastal settlements, killing more than 19,000 people.  Among the affected areas hit was the nuclear power station of Fukushima Daiichi, where three of the six reactors experienced a core meltdown, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, unleashing 750 tons of radioactive water contaminating 30,000 square kilometers of land as well as 110,000 tons of water, where 170,000 people in the region (residents living within a 20 km radius of the plant) had to be evacuated while more than two million are subject to regular radiation testing.  Even now, five years later, more than 80,000 people still live in emergency shelters, while a rise of lymphatic illnesses among children and leukemia in adults has been attributed to people in the region, where conservative estimates are that it will take another forty years before the power station can be totally secured, creating substantial trauma for a nation that already had to endure the horrific effects of the Hiroshima (90,000 to 150,000 deaths) and Nagasaki (40,000 to 80,000) nuclear bombings that ended WWII.  Japan is the only nation to have ever been targeted with nuclear bombs, making this a unique part of their culture.  It’s interesting that Germany and Japan share WWII tragedies, both with difficult memories of the past, where having to overcome self-induced trauma and admit to mistakes is painfully difficult, both destroyed nations that had to be rebuilt at considerable international expense, each becoming superpowers of capitalism, infatuated with American culture, where in the wake of the disaster, Germany shut down their nuclear power plants, as German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is a physicist well aware of the potential hazards, where the underlying spirit of the film is a meditative rumination of empathy. 

Dörrie has a fascination with Japan, having traveled there as many as 25 times, where this is her fourth film made there, including her Ozu tribute, CHERRY BLOSSOMS (2008), arguably the best one, shot during the full bloom of the Tokyo Cherry Blossom Festival.  While this film has an alternate title, FUKUSHIMA, MON AMOUR, an obvious allusion to the Alain Resnais film HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959), though there is no budding romance at the center of the film, but both deal with the trauma of a nuclear catastrophe while using a unique approach of weaving memories and archival footage with contemporary events to create an altogether different contextualization, where illusory ghosts haunt the living, leaving a profound impression of regret and personal torment.  While the Resnais film uses a French woman on a “peace and reconciliation” mission to Hiroshima to remember the devastation caused by the atomic bomb, this film sends a young German woman, Marie (Rosalie Thomass), on a similar mission, joining the organization Clowns4Help with Clowns Without Borders co-founder Moshe Cohen to cheer up the survivors of the Fukushima disaster.  The arrival scene in Japan is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982), particularly the hand-held cinéma vérité techniques witnessing the crowds intermingling with the public festivities at Shinjuku Square and the overflowing traffic from Shibuya Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest railway stations, where Marie, dressed in a clown’s outfit, encounters someone wearing a giant cat head that is so utterly surreal she has to acknowledge its presence and pay tribute.  But before any of this happens, there is an opening soliloquy with Marie asking questions of herself, caught in an existential moment of reevaluation, wondering how she could start over again?  Distracting herself after the embarrassment of having to flee from her own wedding, Marie is not in the best psychological state, having little confidence in herself, where she often breaks down into moments of personal anger and disgust with herself.  Making matters worse, she’s an amateurish clown that doesn’t make people laugh, unable to make any connection with them, which only further exacerbates her own self-doubts.  So what we do have is a fairly troubled young woman who wants to help make a difference, where clearly she’s traveled great distance to do so, which is to her credit, but awkwardly keeps stepping on her own feet, which only demoralizes her even more.  Packing up her bags, she decides to give up and leave, yet she’s faced with the devastating realization that these elderly residents (as all the young people already left the region), predominantly women, have few options, living in “Temporary Housing Communities” consisting of hastily built Porta cabin shelters, as they have nowhere else to go.  Perhaps more importantly, no one is providing care for the residents there, instead they are dominated by boredom and stagnation, living out the rest of their lives as undesirables exiled to an all but uninhabitable 12.5 mile Exclusion Zone.      

As we enter the zone, the stark Black and White images shot by cinematographer Hanno Lentz of the barren and flattened landscape are striking, removed of all vegetation or any signs of life, with the large presence of the evacuated Fukushima power station looming nearby, with uniformed security personnel manning guard stations, where it really appears that they are literally at the end of the world.  Perhaps the most haunting image is seeing more than 9 million bags of contaminated dirt meticulously stacked on top of one another on the land of former farms of Fukushima, millions of bags that nobody wants, creating an immense, geometrically precise Zen garden of toxic waste.  Brief archival images of the tsunami’s raging floods are seen washing away buildings, houses, and cars, followed by excavating crews of workmen wearing masks and carrying Geiger counters, common behavior for all the residents living nearby in Government approved safety zones, leaving a bleak picture of utter devastation and loss.  From this community, a stubborn old woman, Satomi (Kaori Momoi) asserts herself, coercing Marie to drive her to her former home, which is still standing, but in shambles, perhaps the only structure that survived, along with a barren tree, where she brings with her jugs of water and all her belongings in plastic bags, refusing to budge now that she’s finally “home.”  Marie decides to join her, helping her clean up the mess, discovering photographs underneath the dust, and connections to her former life, where she calls herself the last of the Geisha, having mastered the art, where she was teaching a former student Yuki at the time of the floods, surviving by hanging onto that battered tree.  While the two women clean, then sit and sip tea together, signs of a relationship develop, though reluctantly, as Satomi finds the blond Marie overly loud and clumsy, yet they seem connected by their human imperfections, carrying a lot of emotional baggage that is largely left unspoken, as neither one talks easily about the path that brought them there, as both are scarred by painful pasts.  It is in these wordless exchanges that Dörrie excels, full of empty spaces and changing moods, as each is curious in their own way, trying to be helpful, but bogged down by ghosts of the past that visit them at night, illuminated figures in the surrounding blackness, but partially blurred, shattered memories struggling to come into view, accompanied by eerie piano music by Ulrike Haage, GRÜSSE AUS FUKUSHIMA, Soundtrack Ulrike Haage (excerpts ... YouTube (21.21).

When I got home there was nothing left.
What would you do if that happened to you?
Bodies lying around?
Clothes and books, photographs and furniture.
If there was nothing left anymore?
If your world had completely ceased to exist?
If you had lost everything?
What would you do then?

A film about friendship, grief, and forgiveness, the performance by Kaori Momoi as Satomi is among the best of the year, revealing surprising depth, particularly as the film progresses, uncovering layers of hidden attributes that come into view, yet with little fanfare, remaining subtle and understated.  Satomi, more introverted, familiar with the world of spirits, is hardly the repressed Japanese stereotype of a refined woman, instead she is harshly critical of her German friend, referring to her as an “elephant,” instead of elegant, as she’s incapable of the dainty Japanese etiquette of a Geisha, often referring to her condescendingly, where the essence of her humanity is her complete lack of tact.  Thomass as Marie is a beautiful presence, always photographing well in close-up, but nearly amateurish by comparison, where her awkwardness is a true reflection of who she is, which allows viewers to focus all their attention on Satomi, who does not disappoint, as she is the heart and soul of the picture, as much of the later stages of the film are seen through her eyes.  Marie has her moments, perhaps the biggest is a nighttime dancing scene set to car headlights, where Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground sing “Here She Comes Now,” The Velvet Underground Here she comes now - YouTube (2:05), an homage to Terrence Malick in BADLANDS (1973), where a car radio plays Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” in a pitch black night, Badlands - A Blossom Fell - YouTube (3:00).  The language barrier is an additional wall of separation, as Marie is simply removed and left out from overall Japanese conversation, yet this is typical of foreigners in a foreign land, as understanding does not easily reveal itself, but must be sought after with persistence.  Tainted souls struggling to survive in a contaminated land, Dörrie finds poetic means of expression, utilizing smaller moments to magnify larger themes, where the everyday give and take adds an element of healing and repair, eventually gaining confidence until their spirits grow indefatigable.  Satomi decides they need a “Radiation vacation,” hopping on a miraculously repaired moped to visit the bright lights of the big city, discovering a revitalized new energy, and a secret surprise, as Satomi reconnects with her daughter in yet another strange and puzzling relationship, with Dörrie continuing to communicate in an unorthodox style, where dealing with the trauma of the past is a neverending struggle that can feel overwhelming, consuming all your energy, yet humans have the capacity to survive.  Dörrie has written and directed more than 30 films during her career, also written novels and children's books, while also staging operas, revealing a wide artistic range, where her earlier films dealt with a disconnection between men and women, probing the problems in existing relationships, creating eccentric but loveable characters, while her later films remain offbeat, but seem to recognize the value of personal intimacy, creating small, poignant moments that have the capacity to become universally transcendent, poetically filling the empty spaces that separate us all.  

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