Upsetting leading contenders “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Class,” the Japanese official submission “Departures” stunningly won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. No one was more surprised than its director, Yôjirô Takita, who said he did not prepare an acceptance speech. The honor was not bad at all for a filmmaker who started his career making “pink films,” i.e. Japanese soft porn. “Departures” had found unexpected box office and critical success in Japan, where it won 10 awards from the Japanese Academy (out of 13 nominations). Takita and lead actor Masahiro Motoki were curious to discover firsthand what American audiences thought of their film, and they got quite a warm reception.
The two presented “Departures” at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, where they found that the universal story, based on Shinmon Aoki’s memoir “Coffinman,” didn’t lose much in translation for the moviegoers in Manhattan. “Departures” is a solid piece of traditional narrative storytelling in the form of a rich emotional drama with beautiful cinematography — just the type of film that often appeals to Oscar voters, who tend to skew on the older side. Takita’s direction is slow and steady, making the story very easy to follow, while Motoki effectively portrays his character’s appealing blend of befuddlement and earnestness.
In Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki) leads a good life with a loving wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He’s lucky enough to have his dream job as a cellist for a professional orchestra, even though it plays to tiny audiences. But when the orchestra’s owner abruptly closes down the financially underperforming enterprise, Daigo finds himself at a fork in the road. He faces up to the fact that he’s not talented enough to continue making a living as a professional musician, so he and Mika relocate to Daigo’s small hometown near the ocean.
They can live for free in the house Daigo inherited from his mother, but they still need income, so Daigo answers an ad mentioning “departures,” which Daigo assumes involves a travel agency. When he meets his potential boss (Tsutomo Yamazaki), Daigo is offered the job without any real interview. He’s shocked to find out it involves preparing dead bodies for funerals by conducting a formal ritual in front of the family. Yet the very high pay is too good to turn down, so he starts the job, keeping it a secret from his wife and others — until people begin to uncover the “coffinman’s” new calling performing as a musical gatekeeper for people’s final act.
Departures (Okuribito) (Japanese with subtitles; 130 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., June 19 4 out of 5 stars
All-Star ‘Rudo y Cursi’ Mexican heartthrobs Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, joined by writer-director Carlos Cuarón, escaped the height of the swine flu scare in Mexico by traveling to New York for the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “Rudo y Cursi.” Their highly anticipated flick marks the return of García Bernal and Luna to acting on the same set, a long-awaited follow-up to their acclaimed pairing in “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001), co-written by Cuarón. “Rudo y Cursi” also marks Cuarón’s first feature as a director. And the movie’s producers, themselves better known as directors, include leading Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón (Carlos’s brother, who directed “Y Tu Mamá También”), Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros”) and Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). “Rudo y Cursi” is also the first release from Canana, the production company founded by the trio.
Needless to say, expectations have been rather high. Does “Rudo y Cursi” live up to the hype? Well, I’d say it does a decent job. The breezy, well-paced comedy is a lot of fun, milking plenty of laughs. Carlos Cuarón lampoons the deleterious effects of the pervasiveness of pop culture and the illegal drug trade on Mexican society. Though “Rudo y Cursi” is by no means neorealism, Cuarón also makes pointed social and political commentary by fleshing out the stratification between rich and poor as well as between urban and rural areas. García Bernal and Luna are convincing enough as two provincial brothers, workers at a banana plantation in the sticks, who find their way to the big city.
Batuta (Guillermo Francella), a slick soccer talent scout accompanied by a beautiful woman, is stranded in the southern Mexican countryside when his red convertible breaks down. While waiting for the auto repairs to conclude, he spots potential talent in half-brothers Tato (García Bernal) and Beto (Luna) as they are playing a pick-up game. After giving them a tryout, he brings Tato, a striker, and then Beto, a goalkeeper, to Mexico City where they join professional teams and suddenly become media darlings. But overnight success comes with dangerous temptations that threaten everything they have.
Rudo y Cursi (Spanish with subtitles; 102 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4 out of 5 stars
Following the exasperating production of “Eye of the Beholder,” Australian writer-director Stephan Elliot (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) vowed to stop making films for good. After a curtailed self-imposed nine-year exile, which included a near-death skiing accident, he makes an assured return with “Easy Virtue.” The witty British farce made its American festival premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
In Monaco, on a whim, American beauty Larita (Jessica Biel) marries young Englishman John Whitaker (Ben Barnes of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”). With bride in tow, the prodigal son returns home from abroad to his family’s country estate. His mother Mrs. Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) is none too happy with her new daughter-in-law, an immodest platinum blonde racecar driver. It gets worse when she learns Larita wants to move with Charlie into their own place, tearing him from the family homestead. Larita also turns out to be a widow with a secret in her past.
John’s sisters Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) take the side of their mother in the cold war against the barbarian “gold digger from the land of opportunists.” However, their father Mr. Whitaker (Colin Firth), who barely came back home after being deeply and darkly changed by World War I, finds he has something in common with Larita. Both of them don’t fit in with the manor life expected of the Whitakers, who actually aren’t quite as well to do as appearances seem.
Despite being a talky period piece set in the 1920s, Elliot’s direction doesn’t feel stagy. Unlike some other costume dramas that come across as lifeless, it’s full of freshness and vitality, perhaps aided by a partially updated soundtrack. American actress Biel is surprisingly delightful as a woman of “easy virtue” — at least when judged by the Victorian norms of her stifling aristocratic British in-laws. She doesn’t hesitate to rapidly spew out witticisms in revolt. Veteran thespians Scott Thomas and Firth are no slouches, either.
Easy Virtue (English; 93 min.; scope) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., June 5 4 out of 5 stars
Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.
Silverdocs 2009 The 7th annual AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs documentary festival, considered to be the country’s leading documentary film festival, will run from June 15 to 22 primarily at the AFI Silver Theatre in Maryland. It features 100 films plus special screenings from some 60-odd countries, as well as music events and panel discussions. The opening night film will be Kristopher Belman’s “More Than a Game,” a history of seven years in the life of “The Fab Five,” a group of five gifted young basketball players in Akron, Ohio, who make it to the high school national championships led by future NBA superstar LeBron James and coached by a charismatic yet initially inexperienced player’s father, Dru Joyce III. In attendance will be Belman, Joyce, and players Willie McGee, Romeo Travis and Sian Cotton (plus James, if schedule allows).
The closing night film (on June 20) will be Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer’s “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry,” a biography of the controversial, longtime populist mayor of Washington, D.C., perhaps best known nationwide for being caught in the 1990 drug sting that still didn’t quite finish his political career.
The festival’s annual Charles Guggenheim Symposium honors legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who frequently worked with his late brother Robert. Maysles has more than 35 credits as a director and 64 as director of photography, including “Salesmen,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens.” A conversation about his career will include Maysles, his esteemed colleague Barbara Kopple, and famed artists Christo and Jean-Claude (subjects of Maysles’s “The Gates,” which played at Silverdocs in 2007).
The International Documentary Conference, focusing on “the craft and business of storytelling,” will run from June 16 to 20 with 1,200 media professionals and 80 events. In a partnership with BritDoc and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, The Good Pitch provides funding opportunities for filmmakers promoting social change.
American Film Institute Silver Theatre AFI Silver Theatre presents the following series: 2009 Caribbean Filmfest (June 4-5), Korean Film Festival DC 2009 (through June 10), “Charlton Heston Remembered” (through June 28), “Beautiful Dynamite — The Films of Cyd Charrise” (through June 30), “The Films of Danny Boyle” (through July 1) and “Signore & Signore: Leading Ladies Of Italian Cinema” (through July 1). (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver
Freer Gallery of Art “The Riches of Early Soviet Cinema” complements the Sackler Gallery’s “The Tsars and the East” exhibition. The Freer, in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art and the Embassy of France, presents “Salute to Le Festival des 3 Continents” (Africa, Latin America and Asia), celebrating the 30th anniversary of the festival in Nantes, France. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
National Gallery of Art Beginning in 1968, Karel Vachek suffered manual labor in Czechoslovakia for 20 years. He returned to filmmaking with four massive surveys of the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution, the results of which can be seen in “The Film Novels of Karel Vachek” (June 6-27). (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film
Goethe-Institut “Europe Laughs” (June 8-July 13) offers intercultural comedies from European countries, including immigrant populations. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm
EuroAsiaShorts “EuroAsia Shorts: Short Films from Europe, Asia and the United States” (June 1-6) comprises various themes: cities and urban living (showing at the Goethe-Institut), humor and comedy (Indian Embassy), beauty (Letelier Theater), generations (KORUS House), fears and phobias (Japan Information and Cultural Center) and audience favorites (Italian Cultural Institute). www.euroasiashorts.com
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.