This was my favorite film at the 2004 Bangkok International Film Festival, where I saw it twice. I pray that it gets a US release.
The film is set in a timeless, placeless village, where elders are exiled so that they might starve to death--the town's traditional means of ensuring survival for its younger inhabitants. The elders themselves long ago exiled their own parents.
The film doesn't debate the morality of this tradition; rather, we watch the elders during their last days, making shoes and mending roofs, joking and flirting and bickering, preparing for death while doing whatever they can to survive, because they find that they cannot help but try to live. Beneath their optimism lurks a horrifying realism: a crippled woman takes minutes to crawl across a bridge, knowing that unless she reaches the village and begs for a rice ball, she will die.
Most of the film is narrated, back and forth, by one of the elders and her daughter-in-law, who think to one another. We never see them writing, and the elders are forbidden from speaking to villagers, so unless they are telepathic, they are thinking only to themselves. I find this tragic, because they confess to one another so much that is so beautiful and sad, and their thoughts are their only comfort. But we, the audience, can hear them, and this film is, of course, for us.
"Warabi no kou" was shot by Shoji Ueda, the cinematographer on all of Kurosawa's films from "Kagemusha" onward. Here, as in Kurosawa's "Yume" (Dreams), Ueda shoots forests and snow in a still, silent manner that's simultaneously elegant and terrifyingly primeval. (It's not unlike how Tarkovsky could make water and grasses appear so alien.) The effect, and the entire film, is simply tremendous, and devastating. See this film any way that you can.
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