No, not Mr. Spielberg's outfit, which incidentally also has my high regards. I'm talking here about the somewhat dreamy quality (entirely complimentarily meant) of this recent work of Japanese director Shunji Iwai, whom some describe as a 'poetic' director.
As the title suggests, this is a story about two girls, Hana ('Flower') and Alice. Not suggested by the title, however, is the asymmetry – this is Alice's story, even though Hana has an important part to play too.
It may seem slightly odd that director Iwai should take so long at the beginning of the film in taking us along the inseparable pair's inconsequential daydreaming wanderings. The length of this opening sequence, however, is of crucial significance in underscoring the metamorphosis in their relationship. As we soon find out, these two a going through the transition from junior high to high school. After this opening sequence, the two are rarely seen together, until towards the end of this 135 minute film. As Hana says to Alice on the phone, they are in high school now and should not be like a pair of twins anymore. While the motivation for her to say that is actually to spend more time with her new-found boyfriend, there's more truth to what she said than she realizes.
Played by slightly chubby Anne Suzuki (but not quite as chubby as she was in 'Returner'), Hana tricks shy Masashi Miyamoto into believing that he has amnesia and that she is his girlfriend. Other than the typical persona of a playful teenager, we do not see very much of Hana's character until quite some time later. Of her family we also know little, except for an ordinary middle class mother who is not embarrassed to walk around in underwear in front of her daughter's teenage boyfriend (a little playfulness on the part of director Iwai, as seen throughout the film).
The focus now turns to Alice and we are taken into the layers of her character. After seeing her somewhat laid back and timid disposition at a talent scout interview, we learn about the family that must have played a large part in shaping her character. We first saw her tempremental mother, the only other member of her household, who introduces her as 'the girl next door' to her boyfriend when they run into her by chance. Most poignant, however, is a day she spends with her father, a regular but infrequent event. In his thoughtful, sensitive touch, director Iwai shows us how Alice is cool to his father in the beginning, but gradually warms up during the course of the day they spend together in various picturesque part of Tokyo including, I believe, the Meiji Shrine.
The poignancy is in that while the father, while obviously caring, cannot empathize with the teenage girl's yearning for paternal love. With tears in her eyes, as the door of the train is closing, Alice whispers 'Father, I love you', to which he replies with a polite, kindly smile, 'You should be saying 'goodbye', undoubtedly well meant as an instruction of Japanese etiquette.
While the romance Hana longs for with Miyamoto does not blossom (although there is beautiful flower in abundance anywhere she appears), an unexpected (to her only, certainly not to the audience) turn of events leads to Alice being asked by Hana to play the role of Miyamoto's ex-girl friend. As the intriguing triangle develops, we see interaction between the two girls again, as well as some tender, affectionate scenes with Alice and Miyamoto.
This, then, is essentially the plot. But why dreamworks? In one way or another, the three main characters are going through a dream. By the very fact that he is living through the illusion that he has amnesia, the somewhat enigmatic and unexpressive Miyamoto can be said to be really having amnesia, of forgetting something that never was. He talks to Hana about the very dreams that he has but in the end, it mysterious comes out that he is aware of what's going on all along. Iwai thrives on these mental tricks. Hana is the creator of Miyamoto's dream, as well as her own, a teenage girl's romantic infatuation. At the end, she awakes to a new level of maturity, and the restoration of her friendship with Alice, appropriately elevated. Through the masquerade she has been forced into by her best friend, Alice breaks out of her dreamy cocoon, discovering some of her own delicate feelings as well as gaining her confidence that soars in her triumphant ballet performance at the crucial interview.
The visual images throughout the film carry the hallmark of Iwai. We see splendorous scenes of blossom fields with crisp clarity as well as mystic out-focused scenes of dreamy landscape. We see abrupt jump cuts in succession, as well as wondering languid shots. We see human object framed in endless varieties. Most remembered is the sequence on the group of girls posing at the end of the ballet school, with the still pictures eventually finding their way into a photo exhibition which plays a pivotal role in eventually mending the rift between the two girls. The music, mainly alternating between piano and strings, is equally attention demanding, if not more so. It would almost be considered distracting had it not been so beautiful. As the audience, you somehow just have to develop the capacity to take in music and vision, both.
Last words? This is a film worth seeing again, and again, and again.
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