I didn’t intend to watch the Japanese contribution to Window On Asian Cinema, Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone, a World Premiere, because I was asked to write about it for the English web page of the Tokyo International Film Festival next week and had a reserved seat for the Tokyo public screening. But due to a sudden last minute schedule change at TIFF another assigned screening was switched to the same time as Ora. Fortunately, it was available on the BIFF press screening platform.
The awkward title is meant to be an English language approximation of what the Tohoku dialect sounds like in contrast to conventional Japanese. I’m not a subtitler, but I would have advised against such an approach. Still, it’s easy to understand why the producers went this route. The award-winning novel on which the movie is based is written in tohoku-ben. It’s what made it a best-seller and, from what I understand, gives it its unique charm, so the producers obviously think that charm has to be impressed on foreign audiences, as well. It isn’t, and it doesn’t really need to be. The theme of a lonely old woman looking back on her life with some regret is pretty universal, and the specifics of her experience as expressed through her speech patterns can be conveyed by other means. And yet, while the director, Shuichi Okita, manages to drive home the drama without getting too sentimental, he can’t recreate the intimacy of the book, which is only hinted at on screen.
Then there’s Yuko Tanaka, who is 10 years younger than 75-year-old widow Momoko Hidaka, the character she plays in almost every scene of the movie. Tanaka still has a flawless, almost wrinkle-free complexion that tends to distract from her capable performance as a woman whose mind may be playing tricks on her while her body is slowly deteriorating. More to the point, in a number of flashbacks, her character is played by Yu Aoi, probably the most accomplished Japanese actor of her generation, and there’s a certain disconnect enhanced by their respective notorieties, both as actors and public figures. Of course, foreign viewers won’t pick up on these distractions, but the thespian firepower on display seems overwhelming considering the slightness of the material. Momoko ran away from her home in Iwate in 1964 to escape an arranged marriage, only to fall in love with and marry a man in Tokyo with whom she raised two children and pretty much did nothing else. With her husband now dead and her children uninvolved in her life, Momoko wonders what the difference really is between marrying a stranger selected by her parents and being a lifelong housewife. The beauty of Chisako Wakatake’s story is how compelling she makes this question, but, in the end, it’s a personal one that requires a very personal mode of explanation, and this movie, despite its earnest attempt at fantasy—Momoko is pestered by three mischievous hallucinations representing three renditions of herself—isn’t that. It’s basically a nostalgic two-hour visit with a nice old lady who is actually quite healthy in both mind and body. Don’t let the grey hair fool you.
The Disciple, an Indian film that won a Best Screenplay award at Venice, also centers on a protagonist who ponders if he has pursued as meaningful a life as he hoped. In Sharad’s (Aditya Modak) case, however, he thinks this not at the end of a life, but at several junctures along the way. Sharad is the titular student of a Guruji (Dr. Arun Dravid) who follows a more ascetic style of classical Indian music, Raag, that demands total devotion to the point of denying money, career, family, even ego. As in a good Hou Hsiao Hsien movie, The Disciple dips into Sharad’s life seemingly at whim, sometimes catching him at the foot of his father, also a devotee of Raag who didn’t have the talent to get anywhere with it but became a kind of hopeless apologist for the genre. During his early 20s, Sharad sits at the foot of his Guruji, and finds himself coming up short in terms of discipline (his sexual frustrations lend the film a tragicomic cast) and inspiration. In early middle age, he’s gained weight, as well as the frustration that comes trying to make a life out of an art that demands he forsake everything else.
Director Chaitanya Tamhane structures the story in conventional dramatic style, but not chronologically. Sharad’s pursuit of “the truth” in his music may be linear, but his success in reaching some kind of understanding is intermittent, and Tamhane builds tension through an accumulation of non-chronological incidents that become more dramatically fraught as the movie progresses, climaxing in an oddly affecting scene in an outdoor restaurant where a noted music critic bursts the young man’s idealistic bubble by telling him the truth about his artistic idols. It’s not that his heroes were fools or hypocrites, but rather that what he admires about them others find ridiculous and impractical. Adding a parallel side plot about an amateur classical vocalist who makes it as a pop singer, Tamhane also shows how technology both enhances and undermines the artistic purity of a musical form that’s been around for thousands of years. He greatly admires the kind of devotion that goes into it, but his movie finds its own truth in showing how devotion can’t stand up to the demands of modern life.