Thursday, January 25, 2024

Year-End Movies IV: Monster and All of Us Strangers

Hinata Hiiragi and Soya Kurokawa in Monster.

The movies of the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda are not just different from those of other filmmakers; they’re also often unlike each other. He seems to trod a new path each time out, and his narrative strategies are always fresh. His pictures aren’t even always in Japanese: his last, Broker, which was one of the best films of 2022, was shot in South Korea with Korean actors, and its predecessor, The Truth, was set in Paris and featured Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche as mother and daughter and Ethan Hawke as Binoche’s American husband. The common denominator is a focus on unconventional family units, usually involving small children. The two fifth-grade boys at the heart of his latest, Monster, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), the protagonist, and the smaller and younger-appearing Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), have each lost one parent and are being raised by the other – Yori by a hard-drinking father (Akihiro Kakuta) and Minato by his mother, Saori (Sakura Ando), who is still mourning the death of her husband and struggles to balance caring for her son with a tiring job in a laundry. 

The starting-off point of this remarkable film is Saori’s suspicion that the boys’ teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), who looks to be barely out of university, has been bullying her son, both verbally and physically. She goes to see Fushimi, the principal (Yûko Tanaka), who meets her with Hori and a committee of teachers, but she keeps checking her notes and avoiding Saori’s eyes, and her responses to the mother’s concerns are so generalized that Saori finds them infuriating. Fushimi assures her, “We accept your opinion with seriousness” and promises that in the future the teacher will “provide appropriate instruction.” “Am I talking to human beings?” Saori demands. Furthermore, Hori insists that the incident was merely a misunderstanding and Saori is being overprotective. He also protests that Minato is the bully and that he has been victimizing Yori. The more Saori investigates, the more confusing the story becomes. She visits Yori at his home and sees that his arm has been burned, but the boy denies that her son is the cause and confirms that the teacher has been beating up on Minato. And that behavior seems to have continued even after Saori’s complaint – Minato falls down some stairs at school while, according to the other children, he was running away from his teacher.

For a long time we think the themes of Monster are rumors and lies, but these turn out to be secondary. There are plenty of puzzle pictures in which the plot elements don’t come together until very late in the running time, but I can’t think of another movie in which the theme doesn’t emerge until the last third. And I can’t reveal it here without ruining the experience, except to say that its treatment by Kore-eda and the screenwriter Yûji Sakamoto is both daring and deeply affecting. (Sakamoto’s script is a thing of rare beauty.) The structure imitates that of one of the most famous of all Japanese films, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the tale of a rape and murder in the forest is told in four versions that contradict each other, though at the end we still don’t know which one, if any, is accurate; the movie’s subject is the unknowability of the truth. Kore-eda presents us with three perspectives on the events of a few days – Saori’s, Hiro’s and Minato’s – presented consecutively. We know he’s returning to the beginning of the narrative each time he replays a fire that takes down a “hostess bar” (a club that caters to male customers), lighting up the night in the neighborhood where all of the characters live. Each time through he sifts in new, revelatory details. At the end, unlike in Rashomon, we have the entire story. (Rashomon isn’t the only Kurosawa reference; I’m indebted to my observant friend Mark Dellelo for pointing out Kore-eda’s allusions to perhaps the most unusual and one of the least known of his masterpieces, the 1970 Dodes’ka-den.)

In some way each of the major characters stumbles badly. But Kore-eda has no interest in villains; the only person on screen whose behavior is difficult to forgive isn’t a major figure at all, though his influence is profound. Based on Saori’s view of events, we are put off at first by both Hori and Fushimi, both of whom we come to appreciate as we discover their reserves of kindness and sensitivity; what seems at first to be, among other things, a broad critique of the Japanese educational system ends up exposing the good intentions of these two people who are laboring in it and coming up against its twenty-first-century limitations. Fushimi is haunted by a family tragedy that, we learn, is thornier than we thought. Hori is a lonely heart with a tendency to fall in love with women who end up dumping him and whose weddings he attends; we get the feeling that his current romantic involvement is unlikely to reverse the trend. Both these characters have moments when they are apparently considering suicide, but it’s clear that they don’t carry through on their impulses; the ending of the movie is more ambiguous. Tanaka’s and Nagayama’s performances are superb, as are those of Ando and the two perfectly natural yet astonishingly expressive child actors. Among Kore-eda’s staggering array of gifts, his ability to work with children is perhaps the most impressive.

Claire Foy and Andrew Scott in All of Us Strangers.

Initially Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers builds on his 2011 film Weekend, where a one-night stand between two men unexpectedly turns into the beginning of a genuine relationship. In All of Us Strangers, Adam (Andrew Scott), a screenwriter in his mid-forties, makes an unspoken connection with Harry (Paul Mezcal), who lives in the same building, when a fire alarm draws them both into the courtyard. Immediately afterwards Harry, who is maybe fifteen years Adam’s junior, shows up outside his apartment and comes on to him, and Adam politely turns him down. The next time they see each other, in the lobby, Harry is sober and apologizes for his behavior; Adam, a shy loner, wants to suggest they have a drink but he isn’t fast enough – the elevator doors divide them and the opportunity vanishes. The third time they lock eyes, Adam is at the window in his apartment and Harry is outside, and this time Adam overcomes his reticence and beckons him to come up. They wind up in bed, and in the weeks that follow they keep seeing each other and growing closer.

Haigh’s work often deals with gay sexuality, but unlike Weekend and Looking, Haigh’s HBO series about four friends living in San Francisco, and its first-rate movie sequel, All of Us Strangers isn’t in the realm of realism. There are strange undercurrents from the outset. The two men are among a smattering of neighbors in a brutalist high-rise somewhere in London. The building looks fairly expensive but it’s creepy: it isn’t completely finished and there’s no security. If this were a realist narrative we’d wonder who would move in here under those conditions, or how Harry knows which apartment door to knock at, or how it happens that these two men keep running into each other. The movie feels like a ghost story, which it turns out to be. The script Adam is working on is set in 1987 and about his parents, who died that year, shortly before Adam turned twelve, in a car accident after attending a Christmas party. He has a photograph of the house in Dorking, a town in Surrey about twenty miles outside London where he lived with them before the accident, and he trains out of the city to look at it and refresh his memory. What he finds is that his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) still live there, and they haven’t aged. They recognize him, and they even seem to be prepared for the encounter, though they can’t explain how it’s come about; Haigh omits the usual sci-fi appurtenances, like time portals. And as his parents get to know him as an adult, older now than they were when he lost them, Adam begins to take comfort in being around them and keeps returning to visit them. (The transitions between the present and the past become more fantastical as the movie goes on; Haigh includes some surrealistic touches.) He even brings Harry there, but the house is in darkness and no one comes to the door, though Adam can see his parents in the shadows – and, as he learns later, so can Harry.

Haigh is a marvelous director and All of Us Strangers is beautifully made. It’s very compelling, and often powerful and moving, largely because of the quality of the acting in what is essentially a four-hander. Only Mezcal isn’t convincing; he’s the only one of the quartet who behaves as if he were in a Pinter play. The other three are completely naturalistic, and the tension between their approach and the absurdist style is a key element in the way the movie works on us. That’s most potently the case with Bell and Foy, who are so intensely present that their ghostliness is the essential mystery of the film. When I was in my early twenties I saw a friend, a graduate acting student, give a sublimely tender portrayal of Jocasta in Oedipus the King, and when I questioned her about it afterwards she told me that the character doesn’t make sense unless her instincts with Oedipus are maternal as well as romantic. I thought of what she said all those years ago while I was watching Foy in All of Us Strangers, not because we’re meant to imagine a sexual undercurrent in her relationship with her grown son but because the trick to her performance is that, though she meets up with Adam again some three and a half decades later, what she sees when she looks at him is the little boy she left when she died. She understands all the information he passes onto her about his life through that motherly connection. Of course that’s true of all mothers, but the unique detail that colors her interaction with him is that she has had to leap into the future, so to speak – to calculate in just a few meetings the distance he’s traveled without her in his life. The same is true of his father, but he has his gruff working-class masculinity to fall back on, at least at first. What’s remarkable about Bell’s depiction of Adam’s father is that the fact of his son’s homosexuality brings out a sensitivity in him he may not have known was there. In a wrenching moment, Adam remembers coming home from being bullied at school for being too soft, too feminine, and shutting himself up in his room to cry; now he asks his father why he never came in to comfort him. His father confesses that he didn’t want to think about what Adam might be going through because he knew that as a boy he would have been one of the tormentors. Foy and Bell are both spectacular actors. (Foy’s bitter sensuality in the role of the Duchess of Argyll in last year’s A Very British Scandal, along with Paul Bettany’s layered cruelty in the role of her husband, made the otherwise mediocre, repetitive limited series worth looking at.) Here they do something very unusual: suggest what the parents’ feelings might be like if they suddenly appeared from beyond the grave exactly as they were when they were still alive. It requires a balance, shall we say, between familiarity and fervency. Was there any better acting on the screen in 2023?

Andrew Scott is a more complicated case. He’s a wonderful actor, and he shows a warmth as Adam that isn’t usually in his wheelhouse, though it was when he played Hamlet in Robert Icke’s production in the West End in 2017. I kept thinking of his Hamlet, which was marked by a muted emotional alertness in the silences that you see again in All of Us Strangers. Scott did a masterful job with Shakespeare’s language, but I haven’t seen anyone in this role do more with the silences, at least not since Laurence Olivier. (The disappointment about his Hamlet was that he ran out of ideas in the second half and started to repeat himself – a general issue with the show.) Scott’s Adam is an introvert who is always feeling much, much more than he can find words for. It’s a performance of exquisite gentleness, but the problem is the idea to which the characteris tied as if to a sinking stone. It’s ingenious to dramatize gayness in this way: to imagine a fantasy scenario in which a man meets up with his long-dead parents and has to come out to them in his middle age. But the conversations that ensue between Adam and his parents – especially his mother, who recalls how afraid he was of everything as a little boy and who is immediately concerned that his queerness might make him lonely – as well as the ones between him and Harry are too carefully framed to make points about the essential nature of homosexuality. (It’s their shared feeling of alienation that draws the two men together emotionally.)

The movie I kept thinking of while I was watching All of Us Strangers was the 1991 Truly Madly Deeply, in which Juliet Stevenson plays a woman who is so paralyzed by the death of her lover that he has to return as a ghost (played by Alan Rickman) to kick her into moving on. That film, which Anthony Minghella wrote and directed, was a fantasy presented, weirdly and often comically, as realism; technically it’s a piece of magic realism, but it doesn’t feel like any other magic realist movies or literature I know. Truly Madly Deeply worked for me in a way that Haigh’s movie doesn’t because though Minghella’s story is a kind of fable with a moral (you can’t stop living when the person you love most in the world dies), it doesn’t feel didactic. It has a lightness that Haigh, much as I like and admire his work, seems temperamentally detached from. It’s not that I mind the fact that All of Us Strangers is downbeat; its melancholy is partly what makes it distinctive and memorable. But the more it stresses its agenda, the less effective it becomes.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.