Saturday, April 25, 2009


I've been trying to figure out how to write a review of "Cherry Blossoms"--which won an audience award at the Portland International Film Festival this past February and has hung on for several weeks at the Livingroom Theaters in Portland--since I first saw it a month ago. It's an odd little film, and it will be hard to capture why it is so moving. The task is complicated by the fact that I can't really reveal the plot without spoiling the picture (though I notice that most of the reviews I read did so; be warned). I decided to see it again today and discovered that its impact was even greater on second viewing--so I'll start by saying simply that you really ought to see this film, particularly if you are over 40. (It's impact may be less for a young person--though perhaps not for a particularly insightful one.)

I'll say this much about the plot. The story revolves around a German couple in their 60s who have raised three children and have lived out their lives quietly in the country. There are little hints that this life suits him much better than it suits her, but theirs is a long and loving marriage. In the opening scene, she learns that he is terminally ill--but apparently she decides not to tell him, and carries alone the burden of sadness and the shortness of time, and a longing for adventures he has no interest in having.

As the story unfolds, the director (who clearly shares with one of the characters a fascination with Japanese culture and, particularly, a stylized form of Japanese dance called Butoh) reveals details that feel deceptively familiar but just enough off-kilter to be interesting. Love that is longstanding and yet blind to the truth of the loved one. Children who find their parents inexplicably irritating and can't seem to find a way to respond to them with generosity or even curiosity. Young people who see and respond to the essence of an elder whom they barely know. Painful, long-ignored truths that somehow are laid bare at moments of great loss. Time's deceptive pace. Grief so profound that it creates a physical ache. The emergence of breathtaking beauty that has heretofore been invisible, even though it was there all along. The healing power of physical movement. Sacrifices worth making for lifelong love. Healing and connection that becomes possible even after death.

The second half of the film takes place in Japan, and part of its power derives from placing a Western character in an environment that is alien but also rich with layers of meaning and with beauty that would be invisible in a place that felt more like home. Most of the critics I read didn't think the film quite worked, and some kept comparing it to a wonderful Japanese film that I have not seen. Not having that particular distraction, I actually wondered if some of these Western critics couldn't quite make the cultural leap. For me, the film works in a way very unlike a conventional Western narrative. It shares with Butoh dancing a kind of clumsiness that seemed right--visceral, non-verbal, physical, maybe even a little off-putting. As is true for the film's main characters, your reward will be commensurate with your ability to open yourself to odd and unexpected charms. (8)

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