NYAFF/JAPAN CUTS 2011: HEAVEN'S STORY Review

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
When one hears the word 'epic' one usually thinks of 'battles' and 'dragons', 'conspiracy and intrigue', 'larger-than-life filmmaking.' When one hears the words 'revenge story' images of Charles Bronson mowing down street punks or Choi Min-sik dishing out justice with a hammer may come to mind. Takahisa Zeze -- a man who started out his filmmaking career as an assistant to pinku (soft-core porn) pioneer Hisayasu Sato, then himself becoming one of the "kings of pinku cinema" before moving onto relatively mainstream comedies like Dog Star  -- is here to take those notions of 'epic' and 'revenge' and flip them right on their heads and spin them around until they come to rest at an angle where they may breathe freely. Zeze can then take his camera, and slowly, with grace, with sympathy and a deep resonance, study and ponder their motions and attitudes anew. This is Heaven's Story...

...which is actually four stories. And then some.

Sato's (Kana Honda at 8, Muoki Tsuruoka as a teenager) family was murdered. Running away from her grandfather, she finds herself in front of a shop window,  watching a news report on her family's demise and the eventual death of their killer. This switches to a press conference with a young man whose wife and daughter were also murdered. This man vows that he himself will kill the murderer, Mitsuo (Shugo Oshinari) an adolescent who is now serving a life sentence due to his insanity plea. In the eyes of Sato, Tomoki (Tomoharu Hasegawa) becomes her hero, an avenging angel.

Tomoki stumbles through life with a series of odd jobs until he meets indie-rocker, Tai (Nahana). They settle down and start a family in a quiet seaside town. And then Sato, his biggest fan, appears with some news...

Mitsuo is given a second chance when doll maker, Kyoko, (Hako Yamazaki) terrified of being alone when diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's, adopts him, setting about his early release so that he may be her ward and caretaker. Mitsuo, a boy who had been abused and abandoned, redeems himself, finding a kindred spirit in Kyoko; a new mother, someone to live for.

The fourth story follows Kaijima (Jun Murakami), a patrol cop who works part-time as an assassin, so as to earn money for the family of a man he killed in self-defense. His own son, Haruki (Kenichi Kurihara) begging for attention from his absent father becomes a petty thief, always getting caught, sometimes beaten.    

Across these tales Zeze juxtaposes and contrasts places, images, themes and moods, carefully threading together each story, bringing the characters closer and closer to each other, if only for one brief moment.

Much of the film takes place in suburban or rural areas. Places that are either on the verge of great economic growth or nearing utter collapse; all the while hugging the coastline or the neck of the mountains, like a frightened child clinging to its mother, afraid to fall. The abandoned mining town where Kaijima stalks a victim is also the home town of Kyoko: a place Mitsuo takes her to visit, with the vengeful Tomoki and Sato in tow. The new high rise that Sato visited with her family as a child emerges as a central point for the first act of the film, acting as a sort vortex, pulling characters to it like a beacon. The bright colors of the cherry blossoms greet us in the spring, the sound of cicadas permeate the soundtrack across many summers. Clouds pass by like whispering veils of the gods. Minor characters ebb and flow through the narrative, appearing in and out of focus like ciphers, symbols, satellites from another universe; the abused woman who wanders around town, the business man who lost it all, the daughter of the man Kaijima killed, pregnant and penniless. Fable, myth and legend begin to permeate the corners of this realist drama. Nothing is happenstance. 

What starts out as a film about grief, guilt and retribution weaves an emotionally complex, existential tapestry of alienation and loneliness, and then of transformation and redemption. We need all nine chapters, all 4 hours and 38 minutes of running time to get to know these people, to witness their plight for none of it is a wasted moment, all of it is precious. Zeze's imperfections and indulgences as a filmmaker (some character threads don't feel as strong as others, and there are moments where the usually poetic docu-drama veers near treacle shores) bridge and bind these themes, reminding us that cinema as a medium is perfect for those so-called imperfections. The artists who wish to play in it's sandbox, must be brave and take chances, for it is about the journey rather than the destination; to take the opportunity to grow and experiment or else stand still.

Some of Zeze's characters choose to experiment, others choose to grow, while others, out of their own free will or another force entirely, stand still. What ties them together is the irrefutable fact that they all change. Like the cicada shells young Sato and her family find on their stroll to the high rise on the hill, they all shed one skin and become someone new. And yet still they retain the memory, the impression and the motion of that old self, not unlike a wandering ghost, or a spirit who has found its way to heaven.

Nothing is happenstance. The day I found myself watching Heaven's Story was a day I felt emotionally drained and defeated. I felt no compulsion to write, doubting my ability to string together any kind of coherent sentence. My mind wandered back to a few weeks prior when my world seemed very different from its present circumstance. It was a place of possibility and wonderment, a place that I had willed into existence. I ached for that strong, charismatic self; a person who now seemed irretrievably lost. My own vulnerability informed my viewing of Heaven's Story. My own doubts and fears flared up and burnt out with the sights and sounds on screen. Writing now, fatigued by the summer heat, the film echoes in my mind and creeps down my spine as a strange, new friend, and as a teacher... of what? I'm not quite sure. I'm still too tired to know. And that's just it, Zeze's film presents no easy answers despite finding some solace.

So to sum it all up: Heaven's Story is independently-minded cinema at its most surprising and rewarding. For the patient, thoughtful viewer it promises to be a unique and soul-stirring experience. It is a film I do not hesitate in recommending wholeheartedly. 

As a co-presentation between NYAFF and Japan Cuts, Heaven's Story has its North American premiere Sunday, July 10th at Japan Society NYC. More info and tickets at NYAFF's website. 
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