Enigmatic Feast of Female Autonomy

in Cannes 2024

by Han Tien

The Japanese melodrama Desert of Namibia(ナミビアの砂漠) centers on a seemingly superficial yet profoundly enigmatic protagonist named Kana (Yumi Kawai). Her unwavering determination, or perhaps obstinacy, evokes the film Ema (Pablo Larraín, 2019), though the impact is comparatively tempered with other nuances. The narrative initially presents Kana as a Saganesque girl: a beautiful salon technician with a well-proportioned figure, diligent yet seemingly indifferent, who cares for friends while maintaining an emotional distance.

The film’s 4:3 aspect ratio, resembling social media posts, precisely captures the narrative of young men and women, small homes, and intimate relationships. The director skillfully uses zoom techniques, creating a milieu of blue hour: the opening scene zooms in on Kana on a contemporary Japanese street; another zoom captures her eating ice cream before a breakup; a close-up shows a live stream from the Namib desert on her phone, hinting at distant solace; or a zoom-in on a tattoo symbolizing her bond with a new lover.

Everyone around her appears detached when they’re casually discussing the death of a friend, yet find no solace in it, as they drift aimlessly through host clubs. They indulge in bodily alterations, treating nose rings and tattoos as intimate memorabilia. The stark realities of Kana’s environment further underscore how her reluctance to undergo cosmetic procedures, despite her employment in the cosmetic industry, signifies an alternative expression of bodily autonomy. Unlike a typical Saganesque girl, Kana is neither indecisive nor genuinely weak; she fiercely retaliates when harassed and decisively breaks off relationships.

Kana exhibits double standards towards men, allowing herself to be abusive and unfaithful while denying her partners the same freedom. Her new boyfriend, hailing from a middle-class family with a domineering demeanor, faces initial disapproval from his parents due to Kana’s Chinese heritage. Their relationship teeters on the brink of mutual destruction, reminiscent of a Kōji Fukada film, yet Kana’s ability to psychologically manipulate and dominate men prevents this. Her behavior mildly recalls a female revenge narrative, driven by her boundless physical energy and inscrutable mind, enhanced by the director’s quirky insertions.

In this manner, the narrative echoes Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue (37°2 le matin, 1986), albeit without the typical madness and borderline personality disorder. The manic-depressive psyche portrayed in Alejandro Iñaritu’s Birdman (2014) is a notable addition to the film, particularly in its representation of mise en abyme as a means of profiling a troubled mind.  A night scene, almost delusional in its depiction of female solidarity, distantly evokes Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 2019) by Céline Sciamma and also permeates the narrative.

However, Kana’s obstinacy and manipulative behavior intricately blend elements of toxic masculinity and hysteria, maintaining an incomprehensible yet charming quality, as elusive as the final words in Chinese, “ting bu dong” (meaning “I don’t understand, I can’t get what you’re saying”), aligning the film with contemporary sensibilities in a way that surpasses its counterparts.

Han Tien
Edited by Savina Petkova