A film as guarded with its intentions as Kuichisan can be a Venus flytrap for critique, the hungry lobes of “well you just didn’t understand it” ever poised to clamp shut all around you. The film comes with an impressive pedigree: it was touted as no less than the discovery of the year at CPX:DOX. Director Maiko Endo has said that “it is magical; the film will play with you, if you are willing to play with it, too.” So it will now be played with, and hopefully Endo won’t mind a little roughness.
The opening shot is in low-contrast black and white, creating a sense of dream space: a young boy, maybe 9 years old, runs a disposable razor across his forehead in the hazy reflection of a bathroom mirror, and the idea of shedding his skin or removing his identity is established. “The world is going to end,” he says, as a shot of the black hole he’s painting cuts to a close up of his eye spiraling around the frame. A hexagonal mesh pattern on a bolt of fabric appears, suggesting an ornate cage or a mystical knowledge, as vintage-horror-evoking strings fire up on the soundtrack.
This is film language wielded with confidence and purpose, so it’s puzzling to see the steep drop off of tension and intention that follows. The film was shot on the Japanese island of Okinawa (which is home to a large U.S. military base) and tries to capture the unique melding of cultures of the place, but the sense of story evaporates — there’s much walking here and there and taking in the sights, and more than a whiff of “let’s just turn on the camera and see what happens.” It’s like a band getting together for a jam session and seeing what takes form rather than going in with specific ideas (Endo is in fact a musician, and the film’s musical score, which apparently she improvised with a friend, is really cool organic/electronic, gurgly, underwater stuff).
Sean Price Williams’ cinematography brings a strong element of style to the film: he’s restlessly creative, switching between black and white and color and frequently cranking up the grain. He and Endo find quite a few evocative shots: a salamander climbs onto a snake draped over a man’s bare shoulder; a boy runs into the water and the camera dives in with him, down into the seaweed, and ends up following a drifting red sea-fruit; black human silhouettes in motion, shot from a low angle, are criss-crossed with casual/elegant lens flares. There’s a scene lit by flashlights of teenagers doing bike stunts at night, nicely intercut with the reactions of alley cats, that’ll likely cause some pants-wetting over at Vice Magazine.
There’s also footage of a pig being slaughtered, which is tricky business. Onscreen animal killing is on the rise in art-house films, and you could say it’s a good thing to shove it in an audience’s face, forcing them to think about the ethics of animal consumption. But capturing a killing on film entails a responsibility to the life being taken, and dropping this scene into the context-less tumble of images that makes up much of the film brings up the suspicion that it’s being used for provocation or sensationalism.
Endo’s editing tends to the overly cutty, and mostly fails to build a mood. Eleonore Hendricks, as a foreigner wandering the island, is given the thankless task of pulling some kind of character out of her anatomy; she comes across sour and feels extraneous to the film. The young boy vanishes for stretches of time, and numerous characters appear and abruptly disappear. A wandering preacher with a captivating pathos is cut short after 20 seconds of screen time as if he were just another design element. The collection-of-cool-things-I-came-across approach gets to be very Instagram.
But after ages of meandering, the film starts gathering momentum, and comes into focus with a scene of boys lighting torches from a bonfire. There’s a Lord of the Flies atmosphere of danger and ceremony, and the wisps of story take concrete form, as the young boy stands before the others in the light of the fire and tries to speak the strange, all-vowel language that he’s been learning from a book. He gets taunted for his efforts; they call him an alien. It’s an incredibly emotional scene: young actor Raizo Ishihara seems to genuinely experience the shock and disbelief of his character, and eventually, horrifyingly, he gives it another try — opening himself to even more humiliation. The emotional core of the film is here — the visionary child wounded as he realizes he is hated for what he knows — and the opening scene, in retrospect, seems to be its consequence.
How odd to water down such intense feeling and meaning with a scattershot travelogue. In fairness, there’s imagery in the film’s long middle stretch that suggests someone’s childhood memories, but it lacks specificity and emotional resonance. Through much of the film the voice of Ja’mie from Summer Heights High and her favorite dismissive expression floated through the mind of the reviewer: “How random!”
We are becoming culturally conditioned to taking in news feeds of disjointed information, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that film would begin to mimic that paradigm. There’s poignancy to how the human story in Kuichisan finds a patch of daylight in the forest of this and this and this and this and this.