Fri, Feb 12, 2010 - Page 16 News List

FILM REVIEW: You might as well live

Based on a novel by one of Japan’s most acclaimed fiction writers of the 20th century, ‘Villon’s Wife’ possesses a cinematic presence rarely achieved by literary adaptations

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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It’s in Japanese (with Chinese subtitles), and consists of two hours of people battling against the belief that life is a crock, and generally having this belief vindicated. Yet somehow, through some magic that is hard to pin down, Villon’s Wife (Viyon no Tsuma) manages to be, not exactly uplifting, but at least life-affirming. Moreover, although it is based on a novel by Osamu Dazai, published in 1947, the tremendous performances from the principles, the tightly structured narrative and the deceptively simple cinematography give Villon’s Wife a cinematic presence rarely achieved by literary adaptations.

The appeal of the film is all the more remarkable given its obsession with the themes of self-loathing and suicide. It tells the story of Sachi, a simple girl married to a talented but self-destructive writer, Otami, who, almost against his will, does everything in his power to make her life intolerable. The potential for self-indulgent sentimentality is enormous, but director Kichitaro Negishi, who has already picked up the Montreal World Film Festival prize for best director last year, handles his material with a non-judgmental sensitivity that allows even the brutish Otami a claim on our understanding.

The character of Otami, played with enormous subtlety by Tadanobu Asano, manages to remain sympathetic despite his drunken bouts, his infidelity, his dishonesty, and his self-pity. He is a kind of poet of death, idolized by young would-be intellectuals, who hates the very talent that makes him so appealing.

His wife Sachi (Matsuda Seiko) starts off as one of those eternally put-upon women so much beloved of Japanese soap opera, but grows into a luminous presence as time and again she overcomes the trials of her husband’s behavior — which range from stealing money from his regular drinking house to attempting suicide with a death-infatuated fan. It is indicative of the fascinating twists of this film that one of the greatest moments of Sachi’s liberation and empowerment comes when she decides to give herself to a former lover and lawyer as payment for the legal defense of her husband on charges of attempted murder.

FILM NOTES

VILLON’S WIFE

(VIYON NO TSUMA)

DIRECTED BY:

KICHITARO NEGISHI

STARRING:

TAKAKO MATSU (SACHI), TADANOBU ASANO (OTAMI), SHIGERU MUROI (INNKEEPER, WIFE), MASATO IBU (INNKEEPER, HUSBAND), SATOSHI TSUMABUKI (LAWYER)

RUNNING TIME:

114 MINUTES

LANGUAGE:

IN JAPANESE WITH CHINESE SUBTITLES

TAIWAN RELEASE:

TODAY


The emotional cues in Villon’s Wife are refreshingly unexpected, a fact that may stem from author Dazai’s intimate relationship with self-loathing, guilt and suicide (he successfully killed himself in 1948 aged 38 after numerous attempts dating from his school days). For Dazai, the longing for death was not just a literary device, it was an obsession, and this story manages to explore a life bereft of self-control with clear eyes.

The romanticism of death suggests such poetic evocations as Keats’ “To cease upon the midnight with no pain/while thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad,” but Villon’s Wife never lets the audience forget the grubby selfishness of self-destruction, undermining the romanticism that is so carefully cultivated in the character of Otami.

As Otami flounders in his own self-created hell, oscillating from vicious self-assurance to mewling self-pity, Sachi clings on to the baseline of her existence — her son, her femininity, and a vitality that she believes can survive even in the barren soil of her relationship with Otami, who she feels committed to, for better or worse.

Negishi is a deft storyteller, making clever use of elision and mood to carry the story forward at a steady and assured pace. His characters are often confined within the tight frame of small streets and smaller houses, and when the camera opens up onto a beautiful forest scene, this turns out to be the chosen spot for suicide.

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