I imagine there are two possible responses one can have after viewing Japón - awe or complete and utter incomprehension. My mind swayed between the two responses and landed uncomfortably somewhere in between the two and reviewing it has been the most daunting prospect since I joined DVDtimes a few years back - my draft reviews are now numbered in double figures so bare with me as I attempt to drag the words out of my cortex (or alternatively, read Noel Megahey's review of the R2 release).
If Y Tu Mamà Tambien is a Mexican road movie, Japòn is the equivalent of an end of the road movie. We leave the effusiveness of Mexico City for the drab countryside, with the sun parching every inch of land as far as you can see. A man appears, limping along with the help of his stick. As he meets a group of local hunters, he starts to converse with them, gives a hands-on demonstration on how to kill a bird to a young kid and tells the group in a very matter of fact manner that he's travelling out in the wilderness to find a good place to take his own life. Unphased by his frankness the hunting group give him a lift to a nearby valley. However, he must muster the strength to act upon his instincts and with nowhere to sleep, he rents a room from an elderly lady living at the top of the hill.
So little actually happens in the film, it would spoil the plotting to go much further. The pace is as slow as the walker's progress through the valley, with long unedited shots being the norm. Although often compared to Tarkovsky's work, Japón reminded me strangely of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. The cadence, direction and unusual protagonists mirror each other at times but the route chosen by Reygadas is altogether different and arguably more complex to decipher. In fact, I spent much of my time coming to terms with the twists the film takes as many of the scenes seemed to push the limits of what one would actually expect from a film. Towards the mid point, a shift takes place in the character's relation to death and as a result the film also starts to move away from the conventions of the silver screen to a stream of consciousness devoid of taboos with the conjuring of dream-like fantasies, existentialist angst and nihilistic visions.
Many have found Japón to be a staggering tour-de-force but I'm still left completely dazed by the experience - maybe my own values had trouble finding a route in the semi-nihilistic paeon that is Japón but don't get me wrong however: there is much to be admired in such a brass-necked approach to cinema but the film will drive away many more than it will attract. As debut's go this is possibly the most swaggering, self-assured effort I've ever seen and an effort that seems to eschew any normal rules of the business. Besides, if a film's success lies in the amount time it spends torturing the poor soul who has to review it, Japón should be the most successful film of all times...
BBFC cuts: For those who are obsessed with getting their films uncut, it should be noted that this version is uncut. What you get is two scenes of animal cruelty which obviously contravenes The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 in the UK. As this is the NR North American release, it can avoid having to be cut. For more details on the UK cuts, see here
Filmed in 16mm but in 2.35:1 with only natural light (as far as I could make out), the visual experience of Japón is akin to the breakdown being suffered by the character. The image often gets too somber to allow much to be visible but that's due to the limitations of 16mm. It's never going to look great - and the grain is very much visible - but the transfer is as best as it is supposed to look.
A 5.1 mix is included and it's quite poor - it seems like a computer-job effort from a standard stereo track and it really doesn't work at all. The original stereo is included and is far better with a good dynamic range but little in way of spatial effects. Frankly, I'm surprise they wasted their money on the 5.1 mix...
Only one but a very interesting one - a lengthy interview (42 mins) with the director in fluent English. He talks about the entire film making process with enthusiasm. One irritating niggle - the person who filmed it seems to have left the autofocus on meaning that the camera is constantly readjusting itself between him and the background. It's a shame the documentary that made the UK R2 wasn't featured though.
Whatever you response to it, Japón is a remarkable film on so many levels, be it the sheer self-assurance shown by Reygadas, the take no prisoners approach or the will to make something completely alien to most forms of cinema. The DVD release as noted is uncut so an obvious port of call for those who feel strongly that the material should be present.