"Naked of Defenses", "Can Go Through Skin", "My Only Sunshine": Portraits of Broken Souls By Margit Tönson

in 59th Berlinale

by Margit Tönson

Ritsuko (Moriya Ayako) spends her days carefully detecting defects on plastic parts produced in an isolated factory surrounded by rice-fields. Complete devotion to her job keeps her mind away from a tragedy that happened some time ago. A car crash resulting in an unfortunate miscarriage which turned her into a “defected” part in the eyes of her husband. Since then, Ritsuko has transformed herself into a cold, emotionless machine-like being, and there seems to be no hope for redemption. Until a prominently pregnant Chinatsu (Konno Sanae) enters her numb, but voluntary solitude.

One of two Japanese entries in this year’s Forum section, Naked of Defenses (Mubobi) by Ichii Masahide, invites audiences to witness an evolution of a complicated relationship between these two opposite characters. In a society where politeness is everything and that includes not being a burden to others with your anxieties, Masahide has chosen to show just how important it is to appreciate the likes of Chinatsu — open-minded, honest, adjusting, liberal ones. But bringing Ritsuko out of her cocoon is not an easy task.

At times falling back on bare naked instincts of envy and grudge, this affectionate and visually appealing story culminates in Chinatsu’s child being born and Ritsuko, covered with thick mud from the rice fields — is comforted both by the miraculous event and forever-fertile Mother Earth herself.

The evergreen countryside is a place to look for oblivion for Marieke as well in Esther Rots’ intimate and powerful debut feature Can Go Through Skin (Kan door huid heen). This disturbing story focuses on a woman in her thirties, who is assaulted physically in her apartment in Amsterdam by a stranger. Marieke’s (Rifka Lodeizen) retreat takes her to a lonely cottage with minimal comforts. She gradually gets more autistic and locks herself in, cutting off all relations to the outside world, so even a nice chubby, always helpful and tremendously patient neighbor John, is about to give up on her.

Marieke is deeply unsatisfied with the mild punishment of her attacker in court, and in her isolation, only internet chat rooms and other victims with similar stories give her a kind of masochistic comfort. And, of course, she dreams of revenge — one of the most disturbing fantasy-scenes includes her preparing a beverage out of menstrual blood and forcing her attacker to drink it.

According to the director, speaking about the dangers of extreme escapism, “What is good about being alone is also bad. All you have is yourself. It can teach you much about yourself, because there’s nobody to interrupt your thoughts; and on the other hand it can teach you nothing, because there’s nobody to get you out of this self-absorbing stream of thought.”

On the soundtrack, a slightly out-of-tune piano emphasizes Marieke’s broken soul’s pain and suffering. When the visible bruises are gone, how can one cope with the invisible scars? Surely, film as a medium offers limitless ways of showing it. Esther Rots’ decision was to remain true to Marieke’s perspective and so we cannot be sure until the end, if Marieke is slowly “losing her mind”, suffering a paranoia, or if she is actually involved in some kind of revenge-action and living a double-life.

A beautiful, constantly humming, occasionally thumb sucking teenage girl called Hayat (meaning “life” in Turkish) is yet another aloof heroine found among the films in the Forum program. My Only Sunshine (Hayat var, directed by Reha Erdem) displays an everyday struggle for survival of an incomplete Istanbul family. There is a grotesque bed-ridden chain-smoking always hungry and complaining grandfather, and not so happy looking father doing his best to put food on the table, but who isn’t exactly a role model and protector and whose job consists of driving hookers to big ships and dealing with drugs.

And there is Hayat (Elit Iscan), who’s charming innocence will attract filthy minds. Hayat gets bullied at school and abused by a shop-keeper, but she always gets back on her feet. In spite of her poor living conditions and terrible things happening to her, she seems to be carrying a better, more dignified version of life along in her head.

We never get to see her dreams and hopes and longings (and I think this is one of the weaknesses of an otherwise touching story), but on the other hand, maybe this is to encourage us to use our own imagination. Although there are some hints given through traditional songs sung by a boy whose pure intentions are proved at the end. Occasionally mesmerizing cinematography balances perfectly the otherwise hard subject matter.

Some continuity mishaps should have been avoided though — there is such a big scene made out of cutting Hayat’s hair (the girl’s mother, who has a new family, forces her power on a child) and still she is seen later on in two scenes with long hair again. The symbolic escape to freedom constitutes a happy end, which does water down a bit all of the criticism pointed towards the injustice towards women in this male dominated culture.