Less is more. It’s a phrase that could have been coined to describe the films of Yasujiro Ozu; films that are simple and direct in their subject matter of ordinary people living their lives and conducting family relationships and characterised by an equal simplicity in filming technique – static low-level camera shots of performers delivering their lines in an understated and unembellished way. Yet the very simplicity of Ozu’s films only serves to highlight their essential truth, purity and beauty. Subtitled ‘Five Long Takes Dedicated To Ozu’, Abbas Kiarostami takes that ‘less is more’ approach even further in Five - five short seemingly single-shot films made on the shores of the Caspian Sea in 2003; films with no plot, no characters and no action. Five simple films that just mark the passing of time, the flow of the sea and anything that wanders past the viewfinder of the mostly static camera.
That is not to say that nothing happens in the five short films that comprise Five, that the camera merely observes or that the films are completely without authorial input or direction. The films are far from uneventful – it’s just that your idea of what constitutes an "event" may need to be readjusted, and if you are able to make that adjustment, the films can become a fascinating, captivating and entrancing experience. Watching the sea move, the flux and mutability of its patterns and colours as they change and shift in response to the changing light, the relationship this environment has with the people, animals and objects that pass by in the foreground, the films teach us to observe, to have patience, awareness and the self-awareness to think about what we are watching and the impressions it is creating.
In the first film "Wood", the camera follows a small log of driftwood that is washed up on the beach, being carried in and out by the waves lapping on the shore. The second film "Promenade" takes a static position on a promenade looking out to the sea, watching the passers-by, joggers, people walking dogs and even a couple of pigeons who wander into the frame. In the third film "Dogs", a blurred group of dogs sit on the beach, resting, dozing and interacting with each other as the sea colour changes in response to the growing light. The fourth film "Ducks" is just as self-explanatory, as hundreds of ducks walk past the camera which is again pointing out towards the sea. "Moon and Swamp", the fifth film, is filmed at night in complete darkness, a play of moon and clouds in the reflection of a pond, the night air filled with the sounds of frogs, birds, animals and an approaching storm. Each of the films is separated with a short burst of mood-setting music.
In this case less is also more in terms of film criticism. Five doesn’t need explanations of intent, doesn’t need any further elaboration on the description of the films and doesn’t need any commentary either from the filmmaker or a film critic. That’s not a cop-out on my part as a reviewer – I could easily fill pages comparing Kiarostami’s experimental approach here with his other films and consider how it fits within a distinctive "one-word" cinematic approach that attempts to eliminate the intermediary cinematic steps that get in the way between the viewer and the purity of the film’s intent, or examine Five in the light of other similar experimental minimalist works, but none of that is essential or even relevant to anyone approaching the work.
Even less relevant is expressing my own impressions while watching the film since each viewer is going to see different things and form their own individual impressions. Some people will be bored by Five, others will be baffled; some will be utterly captivated, others will think much too hard about the films and impose a reading of purpose, intent and themes on the films. My personal impressions moreover are fleeting ones, my viewing of the films affected no doubt in some way by the necessity of assessing the content and evaluating it for the purpose of a DVD review. That’s not a good way to watch Five, and I’m sure the next time I come to watch the film (and it is a film that you could endlessly rewatch), my thoughts and impressions will be entirely different. Kiarostami himself recommends coming to the films with an open mind and a comfortable chair, and if it makes you feel like taking a nap, then that’s fine – he fell asleep often while making it.
If that sounds disingenuous, pretentious, makes the film seem intimidating or fails to inspire confidence that there is any merit in the film’s non-narrative approach, I can only attempt to assure you, from a subjective viewpoint, that it is not. Five is the considered approach of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, continually striving for simplicity and truth in his work, and you could be no more bored watching it than you could be bored with the continuous marvel of nature and life itself.
Five is released in the UK by the BFI. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
It’s extremely difficult to assess the quality of the video transfer since the film was shot on Digital Video, but not apparently in High Definition, and the image may well have been manipulated in post-production. Some sequences can appear very soft, almost blurred – most notably in "Dogs" – but it has to be assumed that the effect is intentional and impressionistic, as well as being related to the limitations of the equipment. In every respect however, the image seems to accurately convey the director’s intentions, so evaluation that it may not be to one’s taste doesn’t really come into it. The transfer itself shows no problems, the image remaining stable throughout and showing adequate colour definition, capturing the subtle changes in the blue/green tones of the sea. On a dual-layer disc, there doesn’t appear to be any problems with compression and any irregularities that may be seen are more likely to be retinal effects than digital flaws. The packaging states that the image is 1.33:1, but the aspect ratio of most of the films is around 1.75:1 in a letterboxed transfer. "Wood" seems to be at a ratio of 1.50:1, so perhaps the variation in aspect ratio of the films accounts for the lack of anamorphic enhancement.
There are few flaws to be found either with the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. Inevitably the larger part of the soundtrack consists of little more than the sound of lapping waves, but fidelity to the natural sounds is important, particularly in the near blackness of "Moon and Swamp", and there it comes fully to life with a chorus of frogs and a thunderstorm, with full stereo separation. The music between the films is also clear and pleasantly toned.
There are no subtitles on the film because there is no dialogue or titles other than the opening credits which are in English. The extra feature Making Of documentary narrated by Kiarostami is in Farsi and contains optional English subtitles.
There is only one extra feature, but you really couldn’t ask for anything more in the way of supplemental material for the film than The Making of ‘Five’ (51:18), made and narrated by Abbas Kiarostami himself. Showing behind the scenes footage of himself filming on the beach at the Caspian Sea and long sequences from the five films, this 'making of' practically forms a commentary for the film. The director talks about the impulses behind each of the sections and his reasons for moving into an experimental area. Contrary to the impression they give, the films are not "au naturel" but are a combination of planning, device, randomness, accident, calculation and luck – a matter of creating the right conditions and capturing what happens. Kiarostami also talks about the blessing of Digital Video and how it has the potential to be a powerful tool for filmmakers. Most importantly for himself, it gives him the freedom to work in solitude. At the end of the featurette, Kiarostami answers some questions that were supposed to be put to him by Geoff Andrews at a screening of the film in London, and answers them well without over-explaining and pinning the films down.
Also included with the DVD is a 10-page booklet with a descriptive assessment of the film by Jonathan Romney and a consideration of the film as part of Kiarostami’s work by Geoff Andrew. Neither really provide any more information on the films than can be gained from watching the film itself and the Making Of feature.
It’s extremely difficult to convey the merits of five short films that have been made with a largely static, fixed camera pointing out to sea, but if you can’t take my word for it (and there’s no reason you should), you should can trust the BFI who have been being brave enough to support worthy, experimental and non-commercial cinema like this and give it such a fine DVD release. Most of all you can rely on Abbas Kairostami to again produce marvellous, thought-provoking, original cinema that continually challenges the viewer and expands the boundaries of the medium.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 00:02:51