Thursday, 28 May 2009

Still Walking, 歩いても 歩いても (2008) (SIFF 2009)

Happily families stop at ZERO

Families. Don't we just love them? Religious nutters see everything they object to as threatening the sanctity of the (fragile? endangered?) family. The Singapore Government desperately wants people to get married early and have more children, in a decades-long, unintentionally humiliating series of cloying, pollyanna-ish commercials. People living in advanced industrial societies (that includes Singapore nowadays) know better: it's an open secret that the family is one of the most upsetting and unpleasant social institutions to be invented. And better yet, we have an entire genre of eccentric family dramas from East and West to prove it, from Oedipus Rex to The Royal Tenenbaums.

I have no doubt that Kore-eda Hirokazu's film will yet receive a commercial release in Singapore, courtesy of its Ministry of Community Development. It is, after all, a warm family drama that optimistically reaffirms the value of the family. That said, Still Walking presents a quietist Asian take on the more familiar eccentric/broken family more often seen at Cannes and Sundance.

Taking place within the space of 24 hours of a family reunion and death anniversary, the Yokoyama clan - an elderly couple living alone are visited by their children's families - get together for some quality time, amicably chatting away while performing the mundane rituals of family: cooking, eating, looking at old photographs, reminiscing, and gossiping.

But (repeat after me!) it's a family and everyone has problems and resentments. The beauty of Kore-eda's script and dialogue is its naturalistic, anti-theatrical feel. Instead of building emotions to melodramatic crises that demand catharsis, the quotidian presentation of the generic fraying family is low-key and simmering - and very much more realistic than theatrical or deliberately fictional.

Aided by script and ensemble acting, long chapters of bonhomie amidst subtle tensions flare up for the briefest moments to demonstrate Kore-eda's understanding of why family life is resented and feared: Asian families operate on a fine balance between politeness and passive aggressiveness; behind every act of familial generosity is a potential moment of deliberate, tender cruelty and a lifetime of simmering resentment.

The beauty of Still Walking and Kore-eda's script is its optimism - even when the family is the site of passive aggression, people do turn out all right most of the time, despite their very rare and nasty moments.

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