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A married silkworm smuggler, Herve Joncour, in 19th Century France who travels to Japan to collect his clandestine cargo. While there he spots a beautiful Japanese woman, the concubine of a local baron, with whom he becomes obsessed. Without speaking the same language, they communicate through letters until war intervenes. Their unrequited love persists however, and Herve's wife Helene begins to suspect. Written by
Steaming water. Strange trees. Laughing children. Her skin... those eyes. But why should I tell you about it? Why now? Maybe I just need to tell someone about it. And that someone is you.
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If Fate would have it, I would have the opportunity to go to Tokyo for this year's Japanese International Film Festival, and watched this as the closing film. Initially I had mixed this up with Atonement, also starring Keira Knightley in a period romance story, except that this one had shades of The Last Samurai thrown in, with the love triangle moments with the involvement of a Japanese girl.
Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco, Silk takes its name from the Silk trade, where a French village looks to having its economy hit, if not for Alfred Monlina's Baldabiou who ventures into opening a silk mill and employing the townsfolk. However, in need of untainted silkworm eggs, free from an epidemic striking Europe, he sends overseas one of his staff Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt), whom is indebted to him for arranging his marriage with Knightley's Helene, and off he goes on the arduous journey first to Africa, then to the land of the rising sun, now in the impending stage of internal strife.
The journeys are probably the best bits in the movie, with lush landscapes filling the screen in all serenity of the turmoils that are yet to come. I thought director Francois Girard tried to ape Terence Mallick's direction, with lush natural beauty punctuated with voice over narration of the character's inner-most thoughts. We learn a lot of what's going on in Herve's mind, as he tells us the story of his being, and the conflict he faces when he gets tempted to committing adultery, never forgetting about his tryst overseas when back home he has a lovely wife to go home to.
While the movie has that central conflict that provides the fuel to propel the movie forward, somehow it never gets utilized, having the story and characters dance around on the sidelines of the issue, never to take it head on. This adds to the frustration of watching the deliberations that they have, made worse as the movie chooses to unfold itself extremely slowly, taking too much of its own sweet time. Fans of Keira Knightley would have watched this movie solely to see her performance after the Pirates double bill, but sadly, even though she's given top billing, her screen time is limited, as the spotlight falls on Michael Pitt's Herve and we are told of this story through his eyes.
What adds to the annoyance as well, is that the movie is sans English subtitles. Having it set in France but the characters speaking in English is understandable (after all, Pitt is American and Knightley is English), but having the Japanese speak in their native tongue, and not providing the subtitles, removes a layer that would have provided probably a deeper understanding of the movie. Yes, granted we are supposed to feel the pain of Herve in his inability to connect with the people and the one he loves, but I don't feel that this should be done at the expense of understanding, especially for non-Japanese speaking folks.
However, despite its obvious flaws, the movie redeems itself with a powerful end, packing quite a punch especially when you think it's headed nowhere and probably into mediocrity. Suddenly you discover that things are again not always what they seem, and wonder just who the bigger fool is. But the bottomline, if there's a message to be taken away from this movie, is again never to give in to temptation, and truly treasure your loved ones. Tried and tested, clichéd but true.
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