JAPAN CUTS 2011: BIRTHRIGHT (AKA UMBILICAL CORD) Review

Birthright, aka Umbilical Cord, is a deliberately paced psycho-drama about family, rejection and revenge. They say revenge is a dish best served cold, which, coincidentally, happens to be the best way to go into this film. Not because it's a hyperbolic roller-coaster ride full of twists and turns (it isn't), but because so many reviewers have made the mistake of giving away the simple mystery at it's core. So I'll do you all a favor and give you the only synopsis you need to read- Birthright is a story about a kidnapping. To say anything more about the plot would give away what little plot there is.

Critically, Naoki Hashimoto's unsettling debut seems to be getting a warm reception. It was awarded a special jury prize at this year's Shanghai International Film Festival and has received a number of positive reviews online. But the question still remains- is it any good? I notice a lot of reviews contain a healthy dose of caveats and qualifiers in regard to the minimalist nature of the narrative. This strikes me as highly suspicious, and leads me to believe that reviewers aren't being totally honest with us.

The way I see it, there are only a couple of options when reviewing a film like this. One- go with your gut and stick to your knee-jerk reaction (because the gut bone's connected to the knee bone) or two- attempt to intellectualize the film's flaws, so as to avoid the angry cries of "Charlatan!" your honesty would elicit. Personally, I don't fancy either choice, so I'm gonna split the difference and go with a surprise third option- both.

Take one:

Birthright is boring as shit. It makes kidnapping about as exciting as watching grandma clip coupons. Granted, my grandmother cussed like a sailor, but still. The first 15 minutes of the film consist entirely of a young woman spying on an unsuspecting family. She just hovers around their property line and... watches. And when you think she's done watching- she watches some more.

Alright, I can dig it. The director is building tension. He's playing with tone and atmosphere. But man cannot live on atmosphere alone; a film's gotta have momentum. And unfortunately, Birthright has the momentum of a quadriplegic tortoise. Just when things look like they are finally gonna pick up- BAM! The film settles in even further for what you know is going to be one long-ass haul.

The bulk of which involves abductor and captive locked in a room, barely saying a word. The silent face off is an extreme test of wills (and viewer patience.) It does eventually build to a harrowing emotional climax, but this lopsided intensity doesn't do much for the film as a whole. Literally nothing happens for minutes at a time. Minutes! They're like cinematic dog years. While this may be good news for chronic snackers and people with small bladders, it turns the film into an endurance test for the rest of us. And not the oh-my-god-I-totally-feel-what-she-is-going-through kind of endurance test. More like the oh-my-god-when-will-this-movie-end? kind. And I think the distributors know this, because they are totally mismarketing the film as a gritty thriller (just check out the poster and tagline.)   

Take two:

Birthright is a visual tone poem, a somber meditation on the nature of love and the need to be loved. If the Dardenne brothers moved to Japan and remade Haneke's Cache, this would be the result. The film isn't concerned with jingling plot points in front of our face like keys in front of a fussy baby. It's too busy creating a mood, putting us inside the minds of our characters, helping us empathize with them as human beings.

The genre trappings associated with such a story will surely lead to disappointment in some cases, but those willing to look deeper will find the experience rewarding. Exhausting, but rewarding. Hashimoto gives his characters plenty of room to breathe- long ragged breaths, choked with snot and tears. He doesn't try and cram every moment with violent histrionics and needless exposition. And the result is a haunting film that will stick with the patient viewer long after the credits roll.   

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There you have it, folks. My first ever hermaphroditic review. I'm pretty confident that most opinions of Birthright will fall into one of these two very broad categories. So if you are looking to save yourself some time, just decide which one suits you best and adjust your viewing schedule accordingly.

Birthright has its North American premiere on Wednesday, July 13th at Japan Society. Tickets and info HERE.

Joshua Chaplinsky also writes for ChuckPalahniuk.net. He was a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed and is the poison pen behind thejamminjabber, although he's not so sure he should admit it.


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