Film-making masterclass

Privilege to see “Still Walking” again last night at the BFI and be in the audience for the Q&A with the director Hirozaki Kore-eda. The film has stayed with me since I first saw it in 2008(?), it’s one of my absolute favourites – so well observed, well scripted, beautifully acted, beautifully arranged all round. It’s a masterpiece of direction – lots of the scenes have a lot of actors in a small space (often the kitchen or around the dinner table), presumably the director and the camera crew are in there with them – it’s amazing how well it’s managed; a lovely thing of sometimes looking at the floor, or a cupboard, while we effectively overhear the action taking place – it really has the effect of making us feel like we’re in that home, sharing the rooms with those finely-drawn characters; sometimes, masterfully, there are two or more scenes going on at once, something around the kitchen table in the foreground while another scene plays outside through the open sliding doors – the sound, the light, the indoors and outdoors, really this is so beautifully done! Kore-eda also wrote the script; he explained during the Q&A that he scripts everything – at first a surprise to hear, because the naturalness of the dialogue and the domestic setting might lead you to think that it’s part-improvised. But amusingly he said that he listens in to the actors while they’re off-duty, how they converse etc and puts some of the things they’ve said into the script for the next day! He’s also got a wonderful company of actors, some of whom appear in others of his films too – like many great directors, he has some regulars who obviously totally understand and respond to this way of working, and who in turn inspire him too. Special mention was made of Kirin Kiri, who is outstanding as the grandmother Toshiko – she’s so funny, and human, and bitter, and strong. There’s an absolute killer scene where a yellow butterfly enters the house – it’s night-time, it’s flickering around the room like a moth, the family are trying to catch it to put it back outside; suddenly Toshiko thinks that it might be Junpei – her eldest son who died in a tragic accident fifteen years before – come back in a different form. It’s such an incredible scene for so many reasons (I’ve never forgotten it): dramatic – suddenly (for the first time, I think) the camera moves to hand-held, like we’re spinning around the room too, also trying to catch the fragile creature; the family are all caught up in this strange event, lunging at the insect while trying not to damage it, while simultaneously trying to process what is happening with the grief-stricken grandmother. Culturally it’s an amazing sequence, the idea of it – that the butterfly might be his spirit; and devastatingly moving in the way the sense of loss becomes almost physical – even the grandfather, normally stern and dismissive, for a moment hesitates and thinks maybe it could be Junpei. The scene really reminded me of that sequence in Tokyo Story where the mother visits Setsuko Hara in her tiny widow’s apartment, and weeps over the memory of her dead son while Setsuko pretends to be sleeping… Well, there we go – the connection between Kore-eda and Ozu is so strong, it’s unmissable (trains in the middle-distance at the opening & closing of the film!); the sense of resignation and smiling in the face of disappointment (“isn’t life disappointing?”); parents and children…

Kore-eda himself was lovely last night – I noticed him standing at the back as the introductions were made, staying for the trailer of his other film (Maborosi) and watching just the beginning of Still Walking, then retiring. He said afterwards that he basically never watches his old films – it’s too much like looking at old photographs (an activity which they do do in Still Walking!), and he has to let them go. Strangely though, it turns out that for Still Walking and also his later film Nobody Knows, after the film was made he’s written the book! I’ve never heard of this before – a writer/director following up filming with a novel of the same story. I think they’re probably not translated into English (a job for someone?). He said that, for the these two films at least, it was only then that he felt they were out of his system and he could move on. I guess that’s how deeply and personally he feels these characters and stories.

Ha ha, funny discrepancy in the two stories of how Kore-eda came to be there last night (it was very short notice – and the 450 tickets for the screening and talk sold out in possibly minutes – that’s how well-regarded and loved he is): the spokesperson for the BFI said they’d really begged him to come; he said he’d really begged the BFI to be allowed to come!! Ha ha… Whichever it was, he was extremely humble and self-effacing, and funny. What a delight to be in his company.

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