Country: Mexico, German, Netherlands, Spain
Director/Writer: Carlos Reygadas
Cinematography: Diego Martínez Vignatti, Thierry Troncher
Editors: Daniel Melguizo, Carlos Serrano Azcona, David Torres
First thing first, JAPÓN N is nothing to do with Japan the country, Mexican enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas’ staggering debut feature, takes its leave of modern civilization of Mexico City in the opening, following an unnamed gammy painter (Ferretis) who is contemplating suicide, into the vast rural region, he becomes a lodger of an old indigenous woman Ascen (Flores) whose ramshackle dwelling overlooking a magnificent canyon.
Shot consistently in the anamorphic format and often employed by a panoptic camera rotation, JAPÓN makes great play of its horizontal expansiveness but holds the limitation of its vertical perimeters, with Reygadas punctiliously and tantalizingly doling out the contents of what is presented, say, the aerial shots hovering around the painter lying beside a dead horse near a precipice, and in particular, the post-accident one-take tracking shot roves around the railroad tracks until it confirms Ascen’s destiny, thus ends the film on a high note, Reygadas manifests his incontrovertibly skilled craft in achieving visual phenomenon that is a requisite for today’s cinematic auteur.
JAPÓN is deliberately light on its narrative development, we have no background info about the painter, and the story meanders mostly through his eyes of and tentative interactions with this Arcadian existence, while his oscillation between life and death is taken on a new perspective standing cheek by jowl with a nascent communion with mother nature, and soon it transmutes into an amorous feeling towards the wizened Ascen (a dream sequence where a bikini-clad young lady sharing a kiss with Ascen does the trick of transference).
Human’s base instinct of copulation is Reygadas’ potent weapon, portended by a startling intercourse between two horses (a first time for this urban reviewer), the painter’s preposterous proposition of fornication is calmly predated by a classical music foreplay that bridges the two individuals’ disparity, and the next day, Ascen dons her Sunday best to the church before the anticipated appointment with the painter, which lays bare Reygades’ sage understanding of the Christian influence on the provincial folks like the God-fearing Ascen (her name is short for “Ascension”, for sure), however ridiculous, the painter’s proposal is a devotional calling that she can hardly refuse, the following sex scene is handled like a solemn, passionless ritual with a tad contrived fastidiousness (incredibly, both Ferretis and Flores are first-time actors, and baring it all in front of camera with such poise that viewers must take their hat off to them, unfortunately, the former was murdered two years later in 2004 at the age of 60, whereas the latter, a nonagenarian now, supposedly is still with us today), it doesn’t last long (foreshadowed by their horse counterparts), ends up with the painter in tears and later a tacit harmony, only to be disrupted by a band of workers to dismantle Ascen’s barn where the painter sleeps.
Beguiling in its imagery and coy in its message, Reygadas’ ethnographic debut constituents a surging trend of Ibero-American filmmakers from the millennium, compared with Lucrecia Martel, at this point, who might go much farther along the career path than him owing to her ultimate goodwill in exploring the intimacy among humans, Reygadas tends to lean toward a more numinous mystique to shape his contentious subject matter, but the gratuitous animal cruelty betrays his callousness, under no condition, we, who has the power, should victimize those powerless creatures, even it is for the sake of making a point of the hard truth, blatantly wresting a little bird’s head off is just beyond the pale.