With the recent influx of first films from fresh young Mexican directors crashing onto the international scene (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuaron, for example) it would be all to easy to lump Carlos Reygadas’ debut, Japón, into the same category – insert Hispanic Tarantino/Soderbergh comparison here.
However, Japón couldn’t be further away from the multi-layered exploration of Mexico City’s underbelly in Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000) or the pot-fuelled sexual odyssey that was Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002), hinging as it does on the most meagre of plots. Instead it is a melancholic but often touching story of a suicidal man who has given up on life and flees the city for a peaceful death in the countryside.
The Man (Alejandro Ferretis) heads for Aya (a "forgotten hamlet") where he seeks out simple lodgings in the shack-like home of octogenarian widow, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), in which to play out his final moments. Though we’re never told what life the man left behind, he finds a certain sense of tranquillity in the village and his deadened emotions flow back. These soon manifest themselves as sexual desire, which he eventually satisfies through a painfully awkward encounter with an indifferent Ascen.
The cast is made up entirely of non-actors and many of the scenes (including the sex scene) were ad-libbed. Still, aside from the Man’s co-stars of a castrated horse, a permanently bemused looking old woman and a grunting gringo in a baseball cap (Ascen’s nephew), most of the parts are incidental extras, so actor direction was kept to a minimum. There’s even one hilarious moment when a drunken extra complains about ‘the film’s’ catering, showing that Reygadas may have had a hard time keeping them in line.
No doubt done for budgetary reasons as much as artistic ones, Reygadas used a 16mm handheld camera (shot in panoramic widescreen and then transferred across to 35mm), which has given him the freedom to combine often giddying close-ups with stunning 360 degree pans of the mountainous Mexican landscape.
It’s never clear why exactly our middle-aged hobbling hero is attracted to the old woman. It is hinted at that the Man is a cultured city type, coming from a middle class urban background, yet he finds such an existence hollow. In contrast, Ascen, with her simple life, religious fervour and willingness to discover new experience (such as art and marijuana) clearly offers an attraction for a man long since lost to life’s pleasures.
But then Japón is a film of contrasts – the split between the gentle plot and the brutally honest sex scene, the divide between the caring nature of the characters’ friendship and the inevitable awkwardness that arises when two friends take their relationship to the next level. Involving an old woman and a crippled man, this scene could hardly be more different to the Hollywood glam ideal of sex and will no doubt influence its portrayal in cinema in the future.
Though this is his first feature, Reygadas achieves a remarkably composed vision that never falters in its direction towards an ultimately tragic ending. To be able to steer such a subtle story to a shocking conclusion, while avoiding the potential trappings of sentimental redemption, shows a young director firmly at ease with his craft.