Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sogo Ishii's Labyrinth of Dreams (Yume no ginga) (1997)

Film maker Sogo Ishii is a true aesthete yet does not take visual storytelling literally. His films are stories told with images and they are often quite stunning. Perhaps, the most powerful aspects of his cinema come from subtle flourishes which undercut, compete, or overshadow the images on screen. His punk rock flicks, however, like Crazy Thunder Road (1980), Burst City (1982), or Electric Dragon 80000 V (2001), for example, cannot be described in this manner, but his Labyrinth of Dreams (Yume no ginga) (1997) very much can be. Shot in black and white in a rural, quiet setting, little dialogue is spoken, where the emotion lies in the compositions and charged within its characters.
Tomiko (Rena Komine) is a bus conductor whose friend, Tsuyako (Tomoka Kurotani) was engaged to be married to Nikata (Tadanobu Asano). Tsuyako died before her marriage. In letters to Tomiko, she confesses fear of Nikata, as if she believes her fiance wants to murder her. Nikata is a bus driver, and recently there was a collision involving a bus and a passing train with deaths resulting from within the bus. Double suicide? reads the newspaper. A bus conductor and driver is a symbiotic relationship: the driver focuses solely upon driving his passengers to safety while the conductor collects tickets, announces stops, and most importantly at train crossings guides the bus safely across the tracks, warning the driver of approaching trains. Tsuyako was a bus conductor, and the driver was Nikata. Now Nikata is the new driver and Tomiko is the conductor upon his route.The image, the first image of Asano as Nikata, comes from the eyes of Tomiko as she spies him sleeping on the train tracks apparently unaware of an oncoming train. Tomiko screams, silently as Ishii dispenses with her audio, and stirs Nikata who coolly wakes up to walk off the tracks. Tomiko's eyes are often the focus as Ishii gives her frequent close-ups in Labyrinth, and she speaks loudly with just her looks. Komine's Tomiko stands upright and focused behind the driver's seat on the bus while doing her duty, looking always forward and always slightly behind Nikata who's driving. When the two interact, they are nearly silent and slow interactions with either on the sides of table. Despite any gentleness from the two characters, these scenes are always confrontational. Tomiko falls in love with Nikata and she becomes obsessed with the same obsession as Tsuyako: what is hidden within Nikata and who is he? Tomiko doesn't completely trust Nikata and does not completely trust herself to give herself completely to him. Emotions are most powerfully expressed through letters in Yume no ginga. When a letter is received by a character, it is read aloud to the viewer through voice-over. There's a real intimacy to the words, and it's almost as if Ishii is breaking an unspoken rule, as the culture that is depicted is very quiet and reserved. The substance of the letters are hopes and fears and dreams and doubts. A second letter will follow a first, asking its reader to almost ignore what is written in the first. The timing of the arrival of a letter, especially to Tomiko, is always fortuitous or destined. As Tomiko begins her own correspondence with her friend Chieko (Kotomi Kyono), circularity begins, as if Tomiko is about to walk in the same footsteps as Tsuyako. Ishii penned his script from the novel by Kyuusaku Yumeno, and amazingly, he's able to transform an almost exclusively literary trope to film. Having letters read aloud and watching people read letters is the antithesis of the visual medium, yet Ishii is able to place these scenes seamlessly within Labyrinth. The dramatic conflict comes with his compositions but the emotions are charged with these words.Labyrinth of Dreams feels exactly as its title suggests. There are would-be innocuous scenes of daily routine upon the bus with Nikata and Tomiko. The scenes while driving are funneled for the viewer as if he/she is only able to see what the driver has in front of him. Ishii shows little of that. Tunnels and train crossings are amazingly powerful when they appear and they are shown coldly and symmetrically. Likewise, the shots of the actors are very meticulously composed: where someone is standing or how someone is moving is very important. Then there are some scenes where Ishii lets go into subjectivity. This imagery must come from dreams.

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