Tartan Video // 2002 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // June 16th, 2006
"The devil loads weapons, and idiots shoot 'em"
Japón ("Japan" in Spanish) is writer/director Carlos Reygadas' (Battle in Heaven) debut film. The press material says the film's lead is the Mexican countryside. Hmmmm...
Japón tells the story of an unnamed, urbane artist (Alejandro Ferretis) who travels to a remote Mexican hamlet with the intention of committing suicide there. In the small town, he rooms in the empty barn owned by the elderly Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a woman of limitless generosity and deep religious conviction. Though the two have little in common, and neither seems particularly talkative, a mutual respect, and perhaps love, slowly develops.
Japón is a deliberately paced film. I never really understood that term. I've always thought there was deliberation about the pace of most films. But apparently, deliberation only goes into films that are slow, ponderous and challenging to watch. Japón is certainly all three of those.
There were several stretches of the movie where my patience was tested. This is because everything in Japón seems to last about twice as long as it would in conventional films. When Reyhadas finds a beautiful Mexican vista to film, he holds the shot for 60 seconds, instead of 30 (in addition to panning the camera 360 degrees instead of 180). When two characters share a silence we are forced to share it with them for upwards of a minute and a half. While I understand that this effectively replicates the cadences of a small, sleepy Mexican town, often this is done at the expense of the audience's attention span. In one particularly infuriating scene we watch as the artist drinks an entire glass of iced tea. This seems unnecessary as is, but then he pours himself a refill and we watch him drink a second cup.
That said, I should note that there is still much to admire about this film. As displayed in last year Battle in Heaven, Reygadas has an excellent ability to capture everyday events in beautiful and original shots. Japón's strongest asset, by far, are the sporadic moments when, suddenly, Reygadas shows something that is so unrepentantly captivating I have to sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, these shots are often followed by meandering scenes of the artist quietly walking through barren fields, causing me to slowly slump down into my seat.
Another of the film's strengths is the surprisingly strong acting. In both of Reygadas's films he has almost exclusively cast non-actors in lead roles. As Reygadas has explained in interviews, he feels that professional actors bring too much unintended association to their roles (Tom Hanks is the good guy, Steve Buscemi is the creepy guy, etc.), and he wants his audience to watch his films without any preconceived notions. For obvious reasons, hiring non-actors is a risky move, but has so far paid dividends in both of Reygadas's films. In addition to his stated objectives, the cast of Japón all look like genuine Mexican peasants (probably because they are actual peasants). This provides the film an authenticity that is entirely absent from Hollywood films. Additionally, Reygadas is able to coax surprisingly natural and effective performances from his amateur cast. This is no small achievement, and one wonders what he could do with trained, professional thespians.
In an interview included on the DVD, Reygadas professes admiration for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. The Tarkovsky film Japón seems to be most influenced by is Andrei Rublev, an epic depiction of the life of a Russian painter. In addition to their meandering paces, and brilliant cinematography, Andrei Rublev and Japón both feature lengthy asides that have little to do with the main plot. In Rublev there is a disturbing scene of a large, regal horse slowly collapsing to the ground. In Japón there is an equally disturbing scene of equine coitus that is graphic and rather jarring. After watching Battle in Heaven, it seems that a standard theme of Reygardas's films will be unconventional sexual situations. This is something to look forward to.
Ultimately, though Japón's story was underdeveloped, and many of the scenes seemed self-indulgent, this movie heralds the introduction of a talented filmmaker. As both of his movies attest, he can produce beautifully constructed films that are admirably uncompromising. I predict that when his storytelling abilities catch up to his aesthetic sensibilities, Reygadas could become one of Mexico's best contemporary filmmakers.
I don't know if Tartan is responsible for the poor quality of the DVD's picture and video, or if the print for the film really is this poor. Japón had a budget of only $50,000 (financed by Reygadas himself), and has an accordingly washed out and grainy picture, along with a muted soundtrack. I don't want to be so hard on Tartan, as this may have been the best print they could get, but the movie has the look of a 1970s low-budget horror film. The sole extra is a mildly interesting interview with Carlos Reygadas, who comes of as intelligent and personable.
Japón is a film for those who have a yearning to visit a sleepy Mexican hamlet and watch horses copulate. It captures the ennui of small town Mexican life -- and the brutality of equine sex -- so perfectly that after watching this movie the trip will no longer be necessary.
Guilty of putting the judge to sleep. Still, I look forward to future output of this promising director.
Review content copyright © 2006 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Danish)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with director Carlos Reygadas