Tuesday, July 22, 2008

‘Strange Couples’ & ‘Moon Shadow’

‘Strange Couples’ (Director: Matsumoto Takuya)
2008 / Japan / 52 mins
‘Moon Shadow’ (Director; Yoshino Ryouhei)
2007 / Japan / 40 mins
Screened: Sunday July 20, 11:25 – Spiral Hall

Because this is an English-language blog (and because my Japanese is not very good!), we so far haven’t been able to bring you much coverage of the Japanese and other Asian films that screened at this year’s festival. We went a little way toward correcting that with our two long posts on Taiwan’s ‘Drifting Flowers’, and will go further with this post, as well as upcoming posts on the ‘Asian Shorts’ and ‘Japanese Rainbow Reel’ programs.

The directors and stars of these two unique independent films were all able to attend the screening, which meant we had about 10 people on stage after the screening for the Q&A session. It was hosted by local drag personality Rachel D’Amour, who was dressed in a vibrant green and red embroidered silk cape over a two-piece number that made her look like a cross between a hostess in a high-end Chinese restaurant and a Las Vegas show-girl. The four men among the ‘Strange Couples’ crew (director Matsumoto Takuya, lead actor Takahashi Kanimaru, and two of his male co-stars) all came on stage in suit jackets over bare chests (because showing a little skin, of course, always goes over well at a queer event!), and the director added a touch of formality by wearing a tie! But what they were talking about, I haven’t the foggiest clue!

‘Strange Couples’ & ‘Moon Shadow’ are two longer Japanese short films that screened together on Sunday morning, representing two very different independent film aesthetics.

Shot on video, ‘Strange Couples’ is a zany but very touching comedy about what it means to be ‘normal’. It poses this question by surrounding a loving gay-male couple (loving to the point of near-constant molestation) with a cast of heterosexual nuts! One believes she is an alien and expects to be repatriated to her home planet at any moment, much to the consternation of her boyfriend. Another is in mourning for a dead boyfriend, but speaks to him as if he were still alive, and seems to believe he can live again if a suitable host body is found! When the sister of one of the gay partners barges in, freaked out that her brother is a homo, the whole group decides to hit the road in flight from the prejudices of the ‘normal’ world (and the sister, who is maybe more lonely than bigoted, comes along for the ride). Their misadventures take them to a mountain cabin where they encounter yet another group of freaks-- this time gangsters! The action-packed ending (imagine ‘The Matrix’ made with no budget whatsoever) is as hilarious as it is improbable in this joyfully silly film with a serious message at its heart -- ‘There’s nothing weird about being weird’, and nothing abnormal about being in love.

What I admired most about it was that it begins from a totally different premise than most gay stories, which are (typically) about either coming out, or finding or losing love. The one thing we don’t doubt in this story is the love that its two leading male characters share for one another -- indeed, they can’t keep their hands (mouths, tongues) off of each other! If that’s a problem, it’s somebody else’s, not theirs, and this rock-solid love is the focal point of certainty around which their little universe of crazy friends and crazier mishaps rotates. Playfully sexy, touchingly weird, and utterly immune to cynicism, the ‘Strange Couples’ screening was the most fun I had (inside the theatre, at least) at this year’s festival.

‘Moon Shadow’ is a more serious but still funny and moving film about an odd pair of accidental roommates and their various romantic disappointments and frustrations. Hirose-san is a school-teacher of ambiguous age (in the film she looks like she might be pushing 50, but in reality the actress is perhaps not 30!). One morning she wakes up to find a gay man, who has just broken up with his boyfriend and been kicked out of their apartment, sleeping in her bed. It’s unclear whether they were friends (or neighbours) before, but he is not leaving! He cooks and cleans for her, and before long they have settled into a cozy domestic relationship. Perhaps it is something about her new roommate that allows Hirose-san to admit to herself that she is infatuated with one of her young male students. Eventually, we learn that her roommate too became aware of himself and his sexuality through the attentions of a particularly fond teacher, with whom he is briefly reunited toward the end of the film. Filled with lines cruelly cutting (“She’s like one of those nerds having a fake romance in a hostess café”), frank (“I chose someone to love who wouldn’t love me back. It’s safer that way”), redeeming and ultimately liberating (“You made me realize who I am”), it is a quiet, meditative piece about the secrets we keep, the disappointments we endure, and the strange places we find strength.

It is also, intentionally or not, an homage to an older kind of independent cinema, one made clear by the strong contrast of its style and texture when screened alongside ‘Strange Couples’. Shot on film, ‘Moon Shadow’ has the buttery yellow-gold look of 1970s cinema, and is -- perhaps intentionally -- devoid of props or other signifiers (no cell phones, no personal computers) that would root it firmly in the present. We’ve become so used to digital photography, and now digital projection, that to actually see something shot on film is a nostalgic reminder of cinema’s material history, rapidly dematerializing in the digital age.

For more on ‘Strange Couples’, see my interview with the director Matsumoto Takuya, lead actor Takahashi Kanimaru and actress Ito Asuka.

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