|Index||3 reviews in total|
Written and directed by Satoko Yokohama in her second feature, Bare
Essence of Life is the story of 25-year-old Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama),
a farmer in the rural village in the Aomori prefecture on the island of
Honshu. Yojin is different, very different. Prone to strange outbursts,
throwing things, repeating words and phrases, and wildly disconnected
thoughts, something has gone wrong in his wiring. Combining black
comedy with fantasy and a little romance and drama thrown in to stir
the pot, Bare Essence (in its literal translation (Ultra-Miracle Love
Story) carves out a niche all of its own and shows enough raw talent to
warrant a close watch of this director. This goofy but often brilliant
film had many in the Vancouver Film Festival audience scratching their
heads in disbelief and some heading for the exits, but most seemed to
be having a good time.
As the film opens, Yojin wakes up to the ring of half a dozen alarm clocks, glances at the white board in his room where he records his daily schedule, then ventures out to begin his day helping his grandmother (Misako Watanabe) grow and sell products from her organic vegetable garden. Though often with poor results, the boy follows instructions from a tape left him by his deceased grandfather (no mention is made about his parents). Life is uneventful, however, until Machiko (Kumiko Aso), a new teacher, arrives from Tokyo to teach nursery school. We soon learn that the attractive teacher has come to this rural area to forget the death of her boyfriend Kanaké in a car accident in which he was driving with another lover. The story is that his head was severed and landed somewhere on a roof and Machiko consults the local medium to see if there has been any word from his spirit.
Yojin is immediately drawn to Machiko and wants desperately for her to like him but quite naturally, she is a bit frightened by him, especially when he tries to pull her out of her classroom through an open window. He loves the children, however, (all non-professional actors recruited from the local school), and they respond to him as well. One day, while playing with a young boy in his garden, he discovers that being sprayed with pesticide makes him calm and his mind clear. This also makes him more appealing to Machiko so he continues to spray himself with pesticide, ignorant of the potential consequences to his health. Though Yojin's outbursts are definitely off-putting, Matsuyama is an outstanding actor who makes the oddball character sensitive and appealing.
As the relationship between Yojin and Machiko progresses, we also hear ideas about the state of humanity's evolution, our ties to nature, and the health hazards of the spraying of pesticides on our crops. Yokohama has said in an interview that she wanted to create a film in which people were liberated from the conventions society imposes since too many people hold themselves together at the expense of expressing their vitality and freedom. To that end, she has endowed her film with a free-spirited exuberance and enough miracles and surprises to hold us until the Second Coming. If she believes that people will only continue to evolve when they are free, open, and stimulated, Bare Essence of Life may point the way to a new beginning.
As festival director Gavin Liu mentioned, the selection thus far and
for films to come are from directors who are either starting out with
their rookie feature film effort, or into their second film. I suppose
this clearly ties in with the theme of Youth as well, and not to
mention that Bare Essence of Life stars one of teendom's most versatile
actors Ken'ichi Matsumaya. After all, he starred in the very popular
Death Note series, as well as its spin off L, and I believe his films
thus far had always been successful at the box office in Singapore,
which accounted for the full house in today's screening.
But this film isn't the usual popcorn blockbuster that we normally associate Ken'ichi Matsumaya with, and through his performance here my respect for his spectrum of emotions got bumped up a notch. Ken'ichi plays Yojin, an eccentric organic farmer boy who stays with his grandmother and picked up his green thumbing skills through taped recordings of his grandfather, to varying degrees of success. If there was any movie character seen this year that exhibited similar behavioural traits, then it will be Shah Rukh Khan's Rizwan who suffers from Asperger's Disease. Yojin is equally impulsive, and possess this man-child quality that only Ken'ichi can make it both equally irritable, and lovable at the same time.
He's the ultimate unpredictable live-wire, and can invoke a vege-war should his ego be bruised. Being very popular with children especially when they play at his exasperated expense, Yojin's very routine nine to five life got disrupted by the introduction of a new kindergarten teacher Michiko (Kumiko Aso) into their town of Aomori. Yoji's heart stirs for Michiko, who had escaped from Tokyo to start life afresh, since her fiancé and his secret lover had died in a fatal car accident, with the former having his head sliced off an never found. Talk about the bizarre that will be more bizarre as the tale gone on.
But not before seemingly looking like an against the odds romance story with two individuals brought together with the promise of a big scaled Potato Festival, having to spend quality time through their walks home, with one being infatuated with the other, and the other being nonchalant about the affections shown. A major incident then happens involving being buried in soil and sprayed with pesticide, where Yojin changes and becomes a more serious man with only traces of his child like demeanour left. The supporting characters of the limping principal, a psychic consultant and her gossipy grandchildren, Yojin's grandma and the doctor he frequents who has an estranged son, all make for small distractions from what's to come eventually.
I can't quite put my finger on the intent of the message in this film, nor the themes it wanted to touch on since the last hour became totally surreal and fantastical, and had this ominous air to it yet laced with a tinge of light black comedy. Yojin fuels his change with continued dousing of home-made pesticide which he believes will make him more normal for continued acceptance by Michiko, and seriously I wonder the lengths anyone would go to induce change just to be with somebody.
But that's not all. We see Yojin's interaction with a walking dead man (Arata from Air Doll, unrecognizable without his head). Then Yojin suffers from intense vomiting before turning into a walking zombie (no, it's not of the George A Romero variety that craves human flesh), and I thought it tried to talk about the evolution of life, since Yojin had broached the topic of evolution and the necessity for change if he was to continue in his relentless pursuit of his lady love.
But the final shot is the one that took the cake, involving the consumption of brain matter! It's insanely outrageous and will likely make you squirm from the morbidity of it all, even if the prop looked more plasticky-jello like and doused with generous doses of strawberry to make it more palatable. The tired mind of mine preferred to call it quits then and fully agree that it's indeed an Ultra-Miracle Love Story alright.
Possibly passed off as unbelievably quirky and whacky, Matsuyama
Kenichi's performance as a hay-wired 25-year-old oddball really spiced
up the entire film to be the vibrant epicentre throughout Yokohama
Satoko's second feature film.
Yojin (Matsuyama Kenichi) is a 25-year-old farmer grandson who stays with only his grandmother after the departure of his grandfather, who left him only an audio tape containing agriculture tips and instructions. Suffering from a deranged mental state that prompts him to sport sudden energy outbursts and impromptu disorientated behaviour, he finds failure and no meaning in tending his grandmother's farm and looks elsewhere. His attention shifted to a new kindergarden teacher from Tokyo, Machiko (Aso Kumiko), who came here to seek a spiritual medium's help in coping with her deceased husband. It was said that his head was knocked cleanly off in a car wreck...
Matsuyama Kenichi's display of his versatile acting has earned my respect in awe as he never ceased to amaze in Bare Essence of Life. With unpredictable demeanour that triggers mostly humour and simplistic joy, he is highly the bare essence of life in The Bare Essence of Life.
Yojin's random quirky behaviour is linked to the vibrancy in life as he is possibly portrayed as a life form that is liberally without fear or woes. Akin to what Machiko has mentioned to an under appreciating Yojin during a walk home one evening, human beings have possible ceased to evolve due to fear and their focus in destroying nature (urbanisation).
However, Yojin one day discovers that by dousing himself with agriculture pesticide, he is able to retain a calm mind and a reserved body language. In hope of allowing Machiko to like him, he performs this outrageously on a routine and unknowingly causes defects to his good health. Through the pesticide showers, Yojin "evolves" and finds himself less able to express himself physically (less vibrant) but attains adequate writing capabilities (more aloof).
He further evolves to a new kind when he is actually living with a stopped heart. Not just that, Yojin also has a shocking encounter with Machiko's headless husband who is supposedly already dead. This is possible seen as the negative effects of urbanisation and mankind's detachment from nature. The film shows a man living on without a heart (spiritualism) but just a polluted mind (technological advancement). This is subtly hinted when Yojin says that Machiko is the only resident there who thinks of such complex issues of life while the others only hold simple thoughts.
The ending image of the bear savouring Yojin's brains is a powerful explanation of how nature works. Cyclical.
Nevertheless, a directional loss in story is picked up amidst some life-reviewing themes brought up by young director Yokohama. It seems as if she has been caught up with these themes and neglected the story that will serve to be the vessel transporting the logs of themes down the mind flow of the audience.
Without a feasible story, these ideas will merely stay on screen and not connect with us. In short, it will be futile.
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