Saturday, September 22, 2018

Cinema as Deep Healing: August at Akiko's (2018)

Alex Zhang Hungtai in August at Akiko's (2018).

August at Akiko’s (2018) is the debut feature from Christopher Makoto Yogi, who also wrote and edited, and it’s nothing short of transcendent. It's a crime against the art of cinema that it has yet to find a distributor; I was lucky to catch it at the 2018 Taoyuan Film Festival. I have often felt a film to be limited by its need to follow a plot, which is why Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors. Malick’s films still have a plot; he just distracts us from it at every step of the way. His films therefore only come together at the level of auteurist vision, without which they would merely be three-hour-long scattershot images with soundtrack and voiceovers. Yogi gives us the real deal; nothing distracts us from being immersed in this plotless marvel.

Okay, August at Akiko’s is a narrative feature, so technically there is a plot: Alex (modernist jazz saxophonist Alex Zhang Hungtai, who also provides the film’s music) returns at 36 years of age to his grandmother’s house in Hawai’i, only to find it gone and his grandparents deceased. Suddenly having a lot of time on his hands, he moves into a Buddhist hostel run by Akiko (Akiko Masuda, as herself), a sprightly and energetic old lady whose American accent belies her profound wisdom. Alex spends his early mornings meditating and his evenings with music, either playing the sax or piano or, one night, joining Akiko at the local festival dance. He whiles away his idyllic days walking through the lush tropical flora; running around with Phoenix, the little boy next door; swimming with another friend at a nearby pond; or helping the community clear and clean ancestral graveyards.

A plot is usually built on people who are forced to do things, or creates situations that force others to do things. The best part of August at Akiko’s is that nobody is forced to do anything. Alex is free to do anything he likes, even leave, but he stays and joins the others in their volunteer work and community service. The plot can hence serve as backdrop to the other filmic elements, reversing the usual order of figure and ground, foreground and background. One element is the sound (by Sung Rok Choi): bird call, tumult of water, Buddhist bell toll, meditation wood-chop slap, rustle of bamboo grove – even the supposedly more cacophonous sounds, like car horns and construction work – somehow find their own rhythm and discordant coherence when edited to provide the perfect overall pacing. In the penultimate act of this lean yet rich 75-minute film, Akiko takes Alex to a broad and flat volcanic crater, active but with cooled magma that can be walked on; with all the sounds that went before, the quiet of this vast, black expanse is calming and spiritual, and we find it utterly fitting that Akiko performs a full-body gesture of worship to the Great Spirit.

Alex Zhang Hungtai in August at Akiko's (2018).

Akiko herself is a wonder to behold. The first shot of the film, preceding the artfully handwritten title card, is a long one-shot of her morning routine at her shrine, lighting an incense candle and tolling the bell. Already we get a feel for the film’s rhythms, as not only is nothing rushed, but the camera is slower than Akiko, always arriving at a spot after she does. The film is less interested in documenting her actions than in capturing the wake of her movements in ambient space, and the slight distance between camera and person gives her an air of self-content and spiritual centeredness. She is Alex’s closest friend in the film, and their dialogue means the most to him (and to us), but the film is never constrained by putting her on screen while they talk; she may start chatting with Alex in frame, and the scene will continue in voiceover as the camera captures mesmerizing shots of sun-speckled leaves, or rain dripping off a roof edge, or a red leaf-bestrewn stone garden – every shot ideally, harmoniously composed. And yet her words are important: in one scene, she asks Alex whether playing with Phoenix makes him want to have a family, before giving a brief account of her own romantic life; in another scene, as miraculous as the horse-taming scene in The Rider (2018), she leads a prayer for Alex’s family that fluidly links them all to the water, earth, and sky, moving him to sobs and tears.

The film is also a showcase for cinematographers Jose Asuncion and Eunsoo Cho, and two scenes in particular stand out for their beauty and ingenious composition, in a film of such high caliber. On the second night, after Alex has moved into Akiko’s and has played his sax, we cut to a tracking shot featuring a grove of trees that hides a luminous presence, shining through the leaves. Is it fire? No, the light is moving but it’s too steady. The shot progresses, and we see Alex emerge, brilliant flashlight in hand. The other is one of the handful of shots taken from a car’s point of view as it winds along the mountain highway. This one is at dusk and rather dark, and the road is straight. Suddenly a bright yellow blob appears on the screen, like an amoeba, and quickly disappears. Then, a white blob appears, and vanishes a moment later. We see the headlights of an oncoming car and finally get it: it’s raining.

Alas, all good things come to an end. While Alex meditates, we’ve been seeing overlaid shots of a driving car (from its point of view), a specific place in the jungle, and Alex himself. The New Yorker's Richard Brody calls these sequences flashbacks (and builds an argument around that interpretation), but it should be clear that these scenes are out-of-body experiences. Yogi has written a moving blog post about the underlying trauma of the film, present only in its absence. We have hints that his grandfather died in a car crash; his grandparents are calling to him. The end of the film begins with a shot of the stone garden. One small stone begins to roll on its own; a previous plausible shot of a solitary leaf waving back and forth in the wind among the other, still leaves is supposed to prepare us for this self-propelling stone, but it’s obviously CGI. No matter – Alex’s modernist jazz kicks in. He goes to the spot in the jungle that he’d envisioned and hears a footfall here, glimpses a human figure there. The apparitions lead him to a cave, and he enters. Cut to a spotlit stage, where he performs in front of an auditorium empty of all but two people: his grandparents. It has been a journey of spiritual healing all along, and we have been his fellow travelers. No wonder we leave the cinema with a deep sense of well-being.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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