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HIFF premieres Shara: A time of mourning

by Rene Tony Dannes

One kiss takes place in Shara. Yu (Yuka Hyoudo), girlfriend to the main character Shun (Kohei Fukunaga), takes it upon herself to kiss him. The scene, shot with one camera, is long and drawn out. Their lips touch and Shun shows no reaction to either Yu or the kiss. They are together, but separate. And we are aware that the time is passing: Two characters in the prime of their youth, experiencing what would normally an exciting moment in each other’s life, share only the quiet solitude of the park in which they kiss.


The melancholy generated by this combination of isolation and togetherness fills Shara, (called Shara Soju in Japan) a movie that had its U.S. premier Nov. 2 at Dole Cannery as a part of the Hawaii International Film Festival. While not a film for those used to the “attention deficit editing” of summertime action movies, viewers who pay attention, who are patient and accept the movie on its own terms, will be rewarded.

Two brothers, Kei and Shun, are running through their neighborhood in Nara, Japan after having played with some ink. Mysteriously, Kei vanishes. Five years later, Shun is in high school, has a girlfriend, and has become an artist, but neither he nor his family have come to terms with Kei’s disappearance. Family members rarely talk to each other directly about their loss (which they share collectively yet assume the burden of individually).

Female directors in Japan are a rarity, but one who has received the prized Camera d’Or at Cannes, as director Naomi Kawase did in 1997, is rarer still. Kawase does some things that U.S. audiences may find disagreeable. While I give her movie, whose style approaches that of a documentary, high marks, her scenes are long, and many will surely find they drag on needlessly. Minutes pass as we follow characters through the city, with no change in character angle or development. Kawase shows us her characters as they really are: people.

Kawase shoots many “establishing scenes,” scenes whose purpose is normally to set the stage for what is to come. She also shoots many contemplative, quiet moments where the characters just sit and think. She makes use of silence, and dialog is sparse. At times, in fact, the silence is deafening, as when Yu and Shun kiss.

Kawase is experimenting with different modes of storytelling, and realizing that adds impact to the movie. Shara is in fact a perfect example of why we attend film festivals. Foreign films expose non-native viewers to different modes of storytelling, and here Kawase is really pushing the limits of storytelling. No one in the American film industry, corporate or independent, is making a movie like Shara.

However, It is difficult to excuse Kawase’s frequent use of a handheld camera to shoot her scenes, as opposed to a camera mounted on a dolly or crane. There were times when the picture was difficult to focus some members of the audience complained that this “technique” made them dizzy. The camera shakiness sometimes interferes with Kawase’s ability to tell her story.

The key to viewing this movie is seeing the way that, despite the somber and quiet tone of the family members, Kawase has surrounded them in a nurturing, life-affirming environment. (And here perhaps Kawase tips her hat to the legacy of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.) The parents tend both a flower garden and a vegetable garden. Wildlife in the form of animals, spiders, and butterflies abounds. Everyone is busy preparing for an upcoming festival. It is summer time, and flowers are blooming. Finally, Shun’s mother Is pregnant. All of these symbols combine to create a nurturing environment for the characters. We’re confident they’ll be OK—even though they do not talk directly about it.

Kawase deftly makes us aware of time as a motif. Between sequences of silence, we hear clocks ticking, Buddhist priests marking time for their congregations, and the pulsing rhythm of cicadas. Even the beat of the drums during the festival’s dances mark the rhythm of life. Combined with the long tracking shots, and the long bouts of quiet, these all point toward the fact that time will heal this family’s wounds.

Shara is about the loss of a child, waiting, mourning, and memory. It is a simply made movie about simple people who have undergone, and continue to undergo, the trama—purely existential—of losing a family member. Shara is the kind of movie that is easy for average American moviegoer—raised on a diet of special effects and poorly-written dialog—to dislike, and may even challenge some assumptions of why we go to see movies in the first place.


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