SAN RAFAEL (CBS SF/AP) — A sense of loss and the fear of death are recurring themes in the movies by Japanese director Naomi Kawase, whose earliest works were hand-held camera shots of the woman who raised her.
The lens would blur then focus on everyday objects — a view from a small window, water dropping from a faucet, a close-up of the woman’s wrinkled face, peas picked from a backyard garden.
Or, the camera would look up, into the sky, allowing the screen to flicker in a dance of overexposed light.
The choices speak of a determination to reach for eternity, love and hope from a young filmmaker, who grew up not knowing a mother or a father, but knew the woman so dear to her would have to die soon.
Twenty-five years later, the Japanese director is still fascinated by how film can bring together the past and the future, capturing moments that would otherwise be gone forever.
Her “Mourning Forest,” a 2007 Cannes Grand Prix winner, focuses on an unlikely spiritual bond that arises between an old man, who is obsessed with his dead wife, and his young female caretaker, whose child has died, as they get lost in a forest.
“I have gained a lot of knowledge through experience. But to start thinking you are right is dangerous for a creator. You must constantly create anew. You must always be hungry,” Kawase told The Associated Press backstage of a Tokyo theater, where she is directing a multicultural cast in Puccini’s “Tosca,” her first hand at opera.
“You must always be able to catch what is being born that might be even more fantastic than what you have. I’m banking on that potential.”
Kawase acknowledged performance art was a refreshing switch from the world of film. More than ever, she feels her work will leave her hands, to take its own life on stage. She plans to integrate film into the work, with a theme for each act — the earth, under the sea and sunrise. The opera is set to be presented Oct. 27 and 29, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre. Kawase is also a guest speaker at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, which opens October 5th, will show Kawase’s 2017 film Radiance. It’s a love story between a photographer who is going blind and a woman who writes text to help the visually impaired enjoy movies.
Kawase won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 1997 for “Suzaku,” a tale of a peaceful village family, which starts to unravel after a promised railroad, and the thriving economy that was supposed to follow, never arrives.
Now, Cannes has brought her the star of her next film, the Oscar-winning French actress Juliette Binoche. They met at the festival and hit it off right away.
The half-finished and still-untitled film will center on a journalist, who comes to Nara, Kawase’s native area in central Japan, searching for a mysterious herb that appears once only in nearly a thousand years.
“It probably cures something. Everyone is ailing in some way. Maybe it’s not a visible scar, but the sickness lies somewhere deep in your heart,” said Kawase.
“No one knows why that is, or how to cure it. People today are living amid this ambiguity, with feelings of unrest and anxiety. By making this film, we are looking for the reasons and the solutions.”
So the ending, whether she finds the herb, is a secret?
It’s not really a secret, Kawase replies, with her typically seriousness. It’s more that no one knows yet how the story will end.
Another trademark of Kawase’s filmmaking is that she is one of the few directors who shoot in the order of how things happen in a story, much “like a documentary,” she said.
Hollywood and most other films begin with a script and a tight plan, shooting in the order of what’s expedient, all the scenes in the same location, for instance, not how a story unfolds.
“Things are constantly changing,” Kawase said. “I may make plans for the next day, but I might wake up and have another idea.”
That difference is telling. Time seems to pass lazily, uncertainly, delivering a striking, almost frightening reality to her movies.
There is no mistake, the viewer knows, this moment may be your last.
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