Hyperborea series, 2011Anton Ginzburg, 2011
Saint Petersburg, Russia
HANA TO ARISU / HANA AND ALICE (2004)
Dir: Shunji Iwai
HANA AND ALICE GO BOATING
How do you film love? Love being an internal theater, how do you arrange the connections with the audience beyond the immediate, visceral level? The obvious way is to take this theater at face value and attempt to explain every impulse into a chronicle, a story from beginning to end and hopefully with some poetry in the expression. Malick’s contribution is the chronicle as stanzas from a poem, not always in the right order. The Wong Kar Wai way is to present us with just the impulses, allowing empty space at the heart that we fill from ours. Almodovar and Medem go a step further: the impulse to love layered together with some fiction controlled by the same impulse, say a book being written or a dance being performed, as insight into structures of soul.
Bottomline is this: most of the time we fall in love by watching, and create from the person an image that reflects what it means to. In many ways, just like cinema, love is a fiction that we eagerly allow into our lives to inspire purpose out of us.
What Iwai does is even more elusive than this and more difficult to accomplish. And that is because when filmmakers structure they want us to notice. You make the controls too sparse and you risk losing even a dedicated audience attuned to receive you.
The base layer is teenage romance tweaked a little to frame episodes of ordinary life. Two schoolgirls fall in love with an aloof boy who believes he suffers from amnesia.
Annotating this is Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, about two girls embarking upon dreamlike adventure and mischief in modern Paris. What was so remarkable about it, were precisely the elusive controls: the film didn’t give out that we were, in fact, daydreaming until we were too far in to know exactly where. The clue was already laid out in the first scene though, a cat of mysterious eyes and a peculiar chase through empty streets.
So you will have to pay attention to the opening scenes of Iwai’s film, echoing this. Once again a chase in and out of subway cars as giggly play between the two girls. The other clue is obvious enough: Alice.
This layer borrows Rivette’s whimsical light structure. Roles, guises, fiction, synchronous games about the fabrication of narratives, in our case centered at this boy who remembers nothing, is empty space, a blank stage, and the plays the girls assemble around him. He’s told he was in love with one, then both. They both act parts, fashion entire pasts and emotions.
So love as this game of fiction, and getting to allow to be seduced by an image. This is excellent work, and in how it’s subtly acknowledged inside the film: one girl signs up for a drama class, and has in fact done so to be close to the boy, himself an actor, the other is randomly approached on the street to model for TV commercials - and this may well reference Mikio Naruse’s wonderful Street without Return from ‘34.
So the third layer is how the play is going to be resolved on a level behind the base narrative of ordinary life, and into the stage where love is the heightened game of duplicity.
One ploy is simple enough, opening day for the school play both girl and boy were rehearsing and a near-perfect rendition of the mechanisms that give rise to images: out on the stage performance, roles, fiction consumed as real, and backstage the internal machinations of tortured soul. The other is a little more intricate because of how unassuming: Alice auditions for a part in TV commercial.
Now so far this is no different than a French film. Notice what Iwai does, an extra layer that is deeply Japanese. Now the Japanese idea of high beauty and by extension performance, what is often perceived as quaint reticence, is formless heart expressed in visible form. Meditation.
But even a patriarch of Chan like Hongren could not so simply gauge his pupils’ inner heart when the time came to decide for a succesor. What he asked instead, was that they write poems on a wall about it. This is a frequent practice in Buddhism. Painting a cycle will do, an ‘ensho’ meaning awareness. The hand will tell.
Please note this. The film is not about the boy and memory as some viewers have remarked.
Now all through the film Hana has secretly contrived to cling to her object of desire, has lied and deceived. But when it comes to expressing inner self, we note that she is, in fact, a bad actress. Iwai intercuts her melodramatic reactions backstage with the actor’s mock-mannerisms out on the stage. The auditorium is empty when she finally gets out for her part.
On the other hand Alice. She has been part of the ploy but with a certain affection for the part and with genuine feelings. So much so that it slipped from her, a bad actress in terms of the conventional drama of the world. We trust however that even though the image is false, she’s moved to it truthfully. Her audition is to play an image on a screen. Instead the director decides on a whim that he wants her to do a ballet dance as per her resume, and in a short skirt, an almost humiliating prospect. What does she do? Channeling true self into the thing, she amazes with her skills.
So what do we get, between these two girls? Flowers in the sky, Hana meaning flower, reflecting Zen Master Dogen’s notions of illusory mind images.
And on the other hand, the subtlest difference. Emptiness in full bloom. Or in the words of Dogen: being one with just this, while being free from just this.
Something to meditate upon.
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