17th Japanese Film Festival 2013 Review: ORPHEUS' LYRE Plucks Uncanny Hope, Tunes Tragic Death

Turning to Wikipedia, this wordy title actually refers to the mythic Greek figure of Orpheus, a man who used his musical instrument, a lyre, to charm all things in life, even returning his wife from death. While it is not a literal lyre that is used in the stirring score, composer Mamuro Samuragouchi evokes a piercing sound that greatly affects and moves.

Drama and film legend Ryoko Hirosue stars as tragic mother Yoko. She has just lost her daughter in a freak accident. The film begins with an entrancing and ethereal funeral. The small coffin is loaded into the hearse and quietly disappears into pure white. Before the credits have even begun Orpheus' Lyre has commanded the tone and emotion effortlessly. The proceeding scenes play out mere days away from this horrific event and the fatalism and tension on the screen of happy house-bound scenes with Yoko, her husband and the daughter are extremely unnerving albeit intentionally so.

The film is structured in terms of years of memorial. It deals with loss, the terrifying life gap in between and love lost from such an event, but there is something altogether strange that is also happening in Orpheus' Lyre.

Scenes of flowing rivers, blossoms, leaves and branches and the gentle changing of the seasons are prompt reminders of the beauty, force and unpredictability of nature. These scenes seem uncannily linked to Yoko's life and bring to mind films like The Tree of Life. However the film also deals heavily in themes from Lee Chan-dong's masterwork Secret Sunshine in that this is a mother in crisis; traumatised and perhaps driven mad from such an unthinkable event.

This potential madness springs from her depression as things around her change, but these uncanny sways of nature and life also give Yoko hope. She is convinced through oddly unexplainable events and one particularly strange night that her daughter is still out there. This train of thought inexplicably guides Yoko to a pregnant student and her ex-teacher. Their subplots let the film down considerably but are essential to the emotional pay-off in the conclusion.

Essentially Yoko is convinced her daughter has been reincarnated as the student's baby. The years of mourning pass until the baby Natsuke is old enough to speak.

The film handles this four year period well, characters less prominent in the story have developed natural relationships with Yoko and her husband. Yoko's patient agenda is paired off with her natural inclination to be a good mother and good person, and although she is obsessed with Natsuke, she is still a likeable and relatable protagonist despite the cracks that show.

Each scene is masterfully presented, the uncanny feeling and otherworldly mystery of the film is captured via steady cam shots and a constantly moving and flowing camera. The score is often reflective with these travelling ethereal eyes and pairs well with the cinematography and emotion.

The film concludes in a magnificent way, riffing on acceptance and remembrance. Unfortunately this conclusion drags out over fifteen minutes, presenting wholly unnecessary scenes that hammer the films outcome into submission; extending to an even further pointless scene of the future and beyond.

Despite the disappointing ending, the actual conclusion is masterful, and given the character work, presentation and lyricism inherent in the excellent screenplay, Orheus' Lyre is an incredibly moving and highly recommended work.

The 17th Japanese Film Festival is now playing in Melbourne Australia from 28th-8th December, check out the schedule here
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