Surprisingly, two films from the main competition programme of the 39th Moscow IFF were closely related to Japanese auteur cinema of the 1950s, offering different ways of transferring cultural tradition into contemporary cinema.
First, Bottomless Bag (Meshok bez dna) by Rustam Khamdamov presents a classical example of art-house cinema, where the central structural idea of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950) is taken and put into the space of Russian culture. The multi-sensual world in the film is divided into two main narrative lines. The first is the fairy-tale, which is set in a forest (based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove”), and the second is the mysterious and barely sketched life in an imperial palace with a lady-in- waiting telling the above-mentioned fairy- tale to Alexander II.
Khamdamov denies the structural framing, which Kurosawa created with the help of the gates of Rashômon; instead, he expands the structure into the collage of a universal reality. The world of Russian culture appears magical, as explained in Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. Every element there can be substituted by another, whether it’s taken from the palace or from the forest. Such a conceptual turn makes possible all levels of quotation, constructing a meta-cinematic reality. Bottomless Bag is an example of ideational cinema given as enclosed system, which juggles with the senses in multiple ways.
The path that Kurosawa’s heroes have to accomplish is necessary to find the truth and obtain the possibility of a reverse angle (the only one in the whole film) to pass through the gates. In Khamdamov’s film there is no way forward: all the heroes are inside the tale, imprisoned somewhere between the reverse angles. There is no truth, only a bottomless bag of interpretations.
The second film to appeal both to national and cinematic traditions was Summer Blooms (Shigatsu-no Nagai Yume) by Ryûtarô Nakagawa. Here a girl finds herself every morning in a reflection-like world, non-changing and deliriously calm. She can’t help being in such a condition for three years, which have passed since the death of her beloved. She goes to work, slowly walks the streets, and visits a bathhouse; she listens to a particular radio programme and contemplates the world around from a distance. Day after day she reconstructs the dotty memories rendered through similar images from her present and from her past edited in a row. Time turns into a non-linear mode, where past and present (and any future) exist together.
While Khamdamov’s film reality is timeless for conceptual reasons, Nakagawa’s film rises the question of time in the Japanese tradition. The roots of Yasujirô Ozu’s cinema can easily be traced in the film, along with the main heroine taken straight from Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari, 1953) as the girlfriend of the old couple’s dead son. She is intelligent, calm and quite traditional in her reserved and passive demeanour, but here is the problem: tradition, unchangeable and based on the profound philosophy of Ozu’s cinema, here becomes a trauma, which the heroine needs to overcome in order to move forward. Khamdamov stops structural movement and the irresistible development of the narrative in Rashômon, while Nakagawa rearranges the circle of life into a straight line. He uses a simple melodramatic story to juxtapose present and past, to re-conceive the timeless repetitions of everyman’s life in terms of a single-life dramaturgy.
The cinematographic idea is quite elegant in its purity. To live her life, the girl needs to remove the distance of contemplation and move inside the frame rather than stand outside as observer. Three years of her life have passed motionlessly and three frames of blossoming sakura, the wonderful and plain symbol of contemplation, are given in the film. First, a blooming sakura appears at the beginning, before the start of the heroine’s everyday life; the second (and same) is shown before her journey to the parents of her beloved, where we find out that their relationship was actually over before his death; and the third sakura appears in the final frame in the shape of a green tree, as the heroine passes by and finally frees herself from her past.
The central idea pronounced by the mother of girl’s beloved is that life is more about loss than gains, so the only way to understand loss is to understand that time elapses.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2017
Iryna Marholina is a Russian film scholar and critic. She teaches film history at the State University for Cinema and Television (GUKiT) in St Petersburg. She lectures at Petersburg’s Higher School for Directors and Screenwriters and is a curator of the film section at the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg. She has published in the scholarly journal Kinovedcheskie zapiski [Film Scholar’s Notes] and on Séance blog.