Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Top Ten List #1 Happy Hour (Happî Awâ)

HAPPY HOUR (Happî Awâ)                A                
Japan  (317 mi)  2015  d:  Ryûsuke Hamaguchi                     Official site

Brilliantly co-written by director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, but also Tadashi Nohara and Tomoyuki Takahashi, this more-than-five-hours, expansive work may be among the best films ever written about women, where it has a novelistic reach of Edward Yang, but also reaches into the revelatory, searingly confessional outpourings of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), where characters continually examine the depths of their souls, discovering they are surprisingly unhappy with the limits of their expression, where they are given no voice in modern society and are instead routinely ignored even by those closest to them.  More than anything, the film examines the failures of conventional marriages, which in Japanese society also includes traditionally arranged marriages from the prewar generation, where women are expected to stay in their place, largely confined to the duties of home, while their husbands, who control all the money, have the freedom to earn a living and do pretty much whatever they please.  Women are not expected to raise their voice and complain, but to accept their place in society, as this is simply handed down from ancient traditions, largely reinforced by religious practices.  This film is surprisingly resonant in the modern world, as it reveals how well intentioned men, without ever meaning to do so, actually choke the life out of their marriages due to neglect and psychological abuse, where prolonged disinterest only makes matters worse for their wives, as they haven’t a clue how to act any other way, as there are no societal examples to draw upon, as the entire nation is promulgated on laws written totally and exclusively by men, where there is no precedent to include the views of women.  While Kenji Mizoguchi is arguably the most fiercely critical Japanese filmmaker, actively exposing the plight of women throughout his legendary film career, where the oppression and subjugation of women are at the center of nearly all his films, gender equality was never incorporated into Japanese law until the postwar Constitution of 1947, which abolished the previously existing patriarchal authority and re-established marriage (including divorce) on the grounds of equality and choice, where women consequently received the right to vote. Nonetheless, old habits are hard to break, and divorce remains a social stigma in Japan, associated with a loss of face and honor, where elite private schools are said to reject children from single-parent homes, while many companies are reluctant to hire divorced women or promote employees who have divorced.  Among the more remarkable statistics, only about 15 percent of divorced fathers in Japan pay child support.  From columnist Todd Jay Leonard, Divorce in Japan varies greatly from that in the United States:   

No upstanding family wants their child to marry someone from a divorced family, as if it were something contagious. So, they live in misery, putting on a happy façade until the children marry, then they divorce. […]

Also, traditionally, with the father working outside the home — often married to his career and spending most days, evenings and weekends with work colleagues — the wife feels her personal space is invaded when he retires and sometimes decides not to spend the rest of her life serving him. So, she seeks a divorce from him. […]

In my opinion, women in Japan certainly get the short end of the stick in divorces.  There are a number of derogatory terms used toward women, such as “demodori” which refers to a woman who goes back to her parents’ home after the divorce. Another term, “kizumono,” means “damaged goods” like those that are on a discount table because they likely cannot be sold again — “seconds,” in other words.  A more modern term used for both men and women is “batsu ichi” meaning “one failure,” like the English term “one strike.” 

These terms are quite harsh, so it is understandable why people here are hesitant to divorce — even those who desperately need to — because of the stigma associated with them afterwards by society.  

Divorce remains a sticky issue in Japan, for families as well as couples, as unless both parties consent, divorce proceedings are long, protracted, and difficult, while women have a hard time getting alimony and child-support payments.  A woman’s financial dependence on her husband is the most persuasive argument for continuing an unhappy marriage.  More and more, however, Japan sees in-house divorces, called “katei-nai-rikon,” loveless marriages that often end in stalemate rather than separation, where married couples continue to live under the same roof, but separately, leading their own individual lives, having little to no contact with the other.  While Hamaguchi’s film is not specifically about divorce per se, but it has an explosive impact on the lives of four women, all in their mid to late 30’s who happen to be best friends, Akari (Sachie Tanaka), the lone divorcée of the group, yet the most bluntly honest while arguably the most outgoing, who works as a professional nurse, under considerable pressure because of the grim realities of Japan’s large aging population, Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), a shy, in-home housewife raising her teenage son Daiki, with her mother-in-law in the home, subject to the whims of her stoic, overworked husband Yoshihiko (Yoshio Shin), Fumi (Maiko Mihara), perhaps the most reserved of all, the curator of an art center named PORTO, living with her husband Takuya (Hiroyuki Miura), a distant and emotionally unreachable literary editor, and Jun (Rira Kawamura), a kitchen assistant who inadvertently sets the gears in motion by revealing she is seeking a divorce from her husband Kohei (Yoshitaka Zahana), an impassive yet overly rational biologist who specializes in fertilized egg development, the kind of guy who can’t begin to understand the complexities of his wife, yet insists upon having his way.  While these are the main characters who seem to appear before the audience like revolving doors, each sequence providing more insight into their gradually unfolding lives, the origins of the narrative actually began in twenty-three theater workshops, much like the methods of Mike Leigh, where the cast is made up entirely of nonprofessional participants, using improvisatory sessions to flesh out the characters and their motivations, starting under the working title Brides.  Driven by seemingly organic exchanges between characters, an extraordinary authenticity is established by reaching profoundly personal depths of discussion, often using question and answer techniques, where this is the truly unique characteristic of the film, even more than the unusual length.  Premiering at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, Hamaguchi won a prize for Best Screenplay, while all four actresses shared a prize for Best Actress. 

The setting is the port city of Kobe, as the introductory shot reveals the four women riding inside a tram heading up the side of a mountain, as their destination is a gazebo picnic site overlooking the city.  While normally this is a beautiful panoramic vista, on this particular day it is dismally cloudy, engulfed in a fog bank, where they can’t see but just a few feet in front of them.  “This resembles our future,” Jen suggests, but overall the spirited group has too much fun together to take the comment seriously, already planning their next outing.  Fumi invites her friends to an upcoming New-Age meditative workshop at her art center, which turns into an exercise class in search of their inner balance.  Led by Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), a conceptual artist who made a name for himself balancing large pieces of debris left on the beach from the Tōhoku earthquake of 2011, he guides a class of about ten participants through a series of group exercises designed to increase trust and understanding of their own bodies in connection to the group at large, often partnering up to enhance the experience, devoting an extensive amount of time establishing a collective rhythm, reminiscent of the intricate detail established in Rivette’s legendary Out 1 and Jacques Rivette R.I.P.  (1971), itself a mammoth 12-hour film, as both reflect the organic improvisatory rehearsal process as a lead-in to discovering the true voices of the characters in the film.  Shot by cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa, the intimacy of these scenes involves the audience as well, setting the tone from the outset, identifying the characters, sharpening their senses, eliminating all skepticism and negativity, establishing the concept of a group dynamic as the central focus of the film, acting as a gateway to a new and unique discovery, preparing for a different kind of honesty, opening the floodgates for what’s to come, both literally and symbolically.  Ukai is an unusual facilitator, as outside the classroom setting he’s a completely different guy, much more direct and confrontational, asking blunt, even awkwardly personal questions, a trait that is more in keeping with his personality, according to those who have known him since childhood, which comes into play in a group meal after the classes are over.  Asked about their personal lives, it’s here that Jun reveals to the group that she’s involved in a particularly grueling divorce procedure, acknowledging having an affair outside the marriage, which comes as a surprise to her friends, except for Sakurako, who has known her since childhood, so they have a closer relationship.  Akira in particular, who reveals her own growing fears about legal liabilities in the nursing profession, is incensed to have been left out until now, believing they shared everything with each other, but Jun flatly states no one ever asked her before.  This emotional bombshell has a way of reverberating throughout their group for the remainder of the picture, as they each have their own way of displaying understanding and support, which, at least initially, isn’t fully understood.             

Hamaguchi, like Edward Yang, is interested in human relationships and how narratives unfold in naturalistic settings, told without a trace of sentiment or melodrama, with much of it having the feel of documentary realism, edited in such a way as to allow a kind of clinical detachment, as it never allows too much time with a single character, but clearly is interested in delving into psychological realism through each evolving character, as they are vividly better understood by the audience over time, as what we know about them undergoes a transformation, where by the end each one is in a substantially different place from the outset, largely developed through shared experiences, intensive dialogue, and our ability to gain psychological insights out of ordinary moments.  What seems to set them in motion is a court scene, as they support Jun in her “ugly” divorce proceedings, but she is clearly on the losing side of the court battle, caught up in a deeply sexist, male-dominated Japanese society, where Jun’s real intent is to be free of her husband, not based on salacious details, as he’s never been violent or overly hostile, but simply based on the oppressive nature of the relationship, where she believes he’s all but killed her inner spirit through a boring period of continual neglect and disinterest, where she needs to be free of him to liberate what’s left of her spirit.  The court however, is looking for a different kind of evidence than simply breaking her spirit, so it’s set up for the male partner to prevail, and he’s not interested in divorce, but instead insists upon holding onto her, like his possession, as otherwise he will be viewed with disgrace.  So he’s worried about his personal reputation, not the feelings of his wife.  Try as he may, the more he insists, the farther she wants to be away from him.  While the husband Kohei, the court system, and Japanese society at large haven’t a clue why Jun would be demanding a divorce, as Kohei is an accredited working professional, viewed by society as a success, it’s clear by her personal testimony that she’s the harmed party suffering years of emotional abuse, and it’s well past the point of reconciliation, yet that’s what the court recommends.  Each of her three friends witnesses the casual yet derisive manner that Jun’s feelings are completely disregarded, where because of her admitted affair the law remains on her husband’s side, but he’s too insistent on getting his way to even care what Jun’s going through.  This forces them all to reexamine more closely their own marriages and relationships, where things are not as they seem, as an underlying tension is hidden in politeness and social grace.  Hamaguchi scrutinizes each one more closely, yet with deceptive simplicity, where clearly he demonstrates sympathy for the other men involved, yet when faced with a moment of truth, tested by a fierce wave of feminine independence, they behave in an expected manner, unable or unwilling to see beyond their own interests.  This becomes the modern era battleground, all taking place behind closed doors, but women are simply speaking up for themselves, taking control of their own lives, yet it’s clear men prefer their traditional muted expressions.  Much of this plays out with an extraordinary degree of tenderness, accentuated by astonishing music by Umitarô Abe, which shifts from classical symphonic to traditional Japanese to a gorgeously melancholic piano score, all lending credibility to the achievement of sublime moments.            

Sometime later, the four friends take an overnight trip to the Arima hot springs, given another layer of interest when Takuya decides to drive them there, as he intends to meet with a budding young novelist who’s only 25, a female writer he’s editing, Yuzuki Nose (Ayaka Shibutani), which gives the others a chance to needle Fumi about her marriage, suggesting Takuya looks more relaxed in the cute young writer’s company.  In fact, they all feel a new attitude about the solidarity of their friendships, discovering something changing and anew, where each one faces the camera and re-introduces themselves, with Sakurako, who’s known Jun since childhood, confessing, “ I’ve known you a long time.  But it’s like I’m meeting you for the first time.”  These personal shifts are a key to understanding the film, as the film probes under the surface in revealing how the thoughtless and self-absorbed behavior of men places such internalized pressures on women, where it has an extraordinary influence on their existing relationships as well, as women are forced to seek emotional fulfillment outside the bonds of marriage. Interestingly, as if to prove this point, the other three women return home but Jun stays behind, presumably to see more sights, meeting another woman on a bus, who unexpectedly reveals her entire family history before getting off, where this flurry of interior exploration comes to represent what this film is all about, showing how easily our lives are affected by external events.  With that, reminiscent of Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), Jun suddenly disappears, never to be seen again, heading off into a network of protected support groups where confidentiality protections prevent her husband from locating her, though it’s not for lack of trying, literally stalking her, as he hires a private detective in the process.  But she’s also missing from her friends, who probably suffer more severely than her husband, as they rely upon her friendship in an everyday manner, as she’s important to them.  As if to mirror the earlier extended exercise session at PORTO, Fumi’s art center, Yuzuki Nose gives a reading of her latest work, introduced by Takuya, where she reads an extended passage about her experience at the hot springs, which becomes a sensuous expression of nude body shapes and repressed emotional longing, suggesting the unspoken object of her affection is probably Takuya, which certainly makes Fumi, as well as the audience, exceedingly uncomfortable. This leads to a series of random events where Ukai resurfaces and reveals himself to be something of a snake, though he was expected to lead a Q & A with the author, but his strange disappearance creates a last-minute substitution, none other than Kohei, who goes on a diversionary speech about his research into molecular cell division that is excruciatingly off-topic, yet somehow he pulls it together to make a few cogent observations about her story, which, by all accounts, is little more than a shallow, coming-of-age story that seems fueled by feelings she’s afraid to express.  In an ill-advised dinner afterwards, Fumi and Sakurako are placed in the awkward position of having to confront Kohei about the negative impact he’s having on their lives, as his refusal to accept a divorce is preventing Jun’s return, where her absence is a glaring omission, as she was the one that brought them all together.  Predictably, Kohei is unmoved, thinking only of himself, where the dinner ends in disaster, reaching extraordinary levels of tension.  A chaotic series of events occurs changing the trajectories of each relationship, mysteriously moving from optimism to tragedy and back to optimism again, where the story becomes increasingly fragmented into dark twists and detours that contrast against the previously existing harmony, but has a transformative effect overall, ultimately revealing how dramatically lives are changed, becoming an immersive, intensely moving, cinematic experience.  

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