Japón Review

Noel Megahey has reviewed the Region 2 Artificial Eye release of Japón, a remarkable, bizarre, daring and controversial debut from young Mexican director, Carlos Reygadas. A man arrives in a remote Mexican village to kill himself and meets the one person who can save him.

Japón is the debut film from young Mexican director, Carlos Reygadas which in contrast to the hyper-kinetic youthful enthusiasm displayed in recent Mexican films by Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros), shows a sensibility and a maturity that relies less on Hollywood influences and stylings. With its long slow takes where little happens, its use of extreme and sometimes quite disturbing imagery and a cast of non-professional actors, Japón is not going to be a film that appeals to a mass audience. Deep down however, it is one of the most moving and striking films of recent years.

A man (Alejandro Ferretis) comes to a small, remote Mexican village and looks for a place to stay while he contemplates suicide. He lodges with an old lady, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), high up on a hill overlooking a canyon. The old lady’s nephew Juan Luis wants to knock down the barn where the man is sleeping, as he wants to use the stones, and he isn’t happy that the man is there in his way. The man struggles with his inner turmoil, trying to find peace of mind and the tranquillity to do what he needs to do. He comes to the conclusion that there is only one thing that will help him overcome his demons and the old lady agrees to help him.

Much has been made of the influence of Tarkovsky on Reygadas’ film, to such an extent that I expected to see burning cottages, raining rooms and riverbeds littered with household objects – but Reygadas is less interested in Tarkovsky’s iconography than in his ability to draw emotional force from objects, faces and landscapes. Japón has some of the most beautiful and expressive cinematography you’ll see in a film this year. 360° Mexican landscapes, sensitive portraiture – everything is filmed with a superb sense of composition and genuine feeling for the subject, capturing the location, the people as well as the emotional inner landscapes of the characters.

The Tarkovsky influence is evident in other ways though – Ascen’s actions towards the end of the film are strongly reminiscent of The Sacrifice and Nostalghia. In Japón however, the reasons for what she does are much more personal and less obvious to a viewer. In The Sacrifice, the whole of the human race is at stake, while in Japón, Ascen’s actions are motivated, to all appearances, through the simple act of love for another person. She takes on his sickness in an act of self-sacrifice and the film is all the more human, personal and real for it – not least because of the astonishingly open performance from Magdalena Flores, giving an authenticity to the role of Ascen that a professional actress couldn’t possibly match.

The director’s use of “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion will also ring a few bells, as will his methods of using music in the film, suffusing events with significance and grandeur, building up to an emotional show-stopping epic final shot set to Avro Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. It may all seem like borrowed emotion using very familiar pieces, but Reygadas has a way of making these pieces his own and making them work for him.

A word of warning though – this is not a film for everyone and it is not easy viewing. It is very strong and uncompromising in its subject matter and very graphic in its depiction of raw human emotions. Several of the more extreme scenes of animal cruelty have been cut by the BBFC for the cinematic and the DVD release (about one minute of cuts), but there are still some very strong and unconventional scenes that I have never seen in a film before (and have never felt I needed to see before) – including some sex scenes of an unconventional nature – but their effect in the context of the film is powerful, if not completely comprehensible. Japón is often oblique, elusive, and unfathomable, but then aren’t human beings and their actions often just as incomprehensible? Japón is also a deeply, deeply moving film, reaching a level of authenticity that no documentary could ever achieve.

PictureJapón was filmed on 16mm, using anamorphic lenses to give a 2.35:1 image – an unusual aspect ratio for 16mm, but it looks fabulous. The picture on the Artificial Eye DVD, transferred anamorphically at the original ratio copes tremendously well with the washed-out, sun-bleached images and the dancing grain of the 16mm stock. The image remains sharp and clear with none of the artefacts that might be expected with such a difficult picture. There are one or two minor marks on the picture itself, but there is nothing much else to find fault with. An excellent transfer of one beautiful looking film.

SoundThe Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is also excellent. It’s never going to be a demonstration disc, but the sound design is nevertheless very important to this particular film and it is treated well here with good stereo separation for effects and powerful presentation of the musical score. The sound is occasionally muffled on voices, but this would be more to do with the nature of the recording of the source material and is not much of a problem.

SubtitlesThe English subtitles are optional. They are edged, clear and easy to read. They rarely appear on the print, remaining mainly in the black border at the bottom of the screen.

ExtrasTheatrical trailer (1.32)The trailer for the film is presented in 2.35:1 letterbox. It is silent except for the music which, combined with the images, give the film an intriguing and epic feel.

Interview with Carlos Reygadas (41.28)The director speaks perfect English and gives an informative interview. He talks about his early short films, just out of film-school, his influences and a lot of detail on the filming of Japón, his first feature film. He even explains the title and the reasoning behind it is pretty convoluted. The interview is annoyingly sound-edited with the sound bizarrely dropping out in pauses between words and sentences. It takes a while to get used to, but it is still very distracting.

Documentary (Ayacatzintla) (34.46)Two years after shooting the film, Reygadas went back to the little Mexican town where Japón was made, to show them the finished film, meeting again the locals who starred in the film. The showing turns out to be a major event for the town. This is a fantastic little documentary, almost as moving as the film itself. It is presented in 1.85:1 letterbox with fixed English subtitles.

ConclusionCarlos Reygadas is a very young director and Japón is his first feature film, but he displays a remarkable intelligence, clarity of purpose and a consummate ability to put his ideas onto the screen. Personally, I would consider him to be far more important to the progression of Mexican cinema than the Hollywood leanings of his contemporaries. Japón is an amazingly accomplished first film – heaven knows where he will go from here.


Updated: Aug 19, 2003

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