Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This month the Northwest Film Forum is in the midst of “A Re-Introduction to Ryusuke Hamaguchi,” a timely retrospective of the work of the Japanese filmmaker who just copped an Oscar for Drive My Car. I have previously used this space to sing the praises of that film and Hamaguchi’s other wowza 2021 release, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.
The NWFF series brings not only RH’s other features, Happy Hour and Asako I & II, but also (for what NWFF says is their stateside premiere) two shorter-than-feature-length films, Touching the Skin of Eeriness (2013) and Heaven Is Still Far Away (2016). I suppose these films might have fit into some kind of omnibus film like Wheel of Fortune, although they are very different in subject matter. Each has the director’s gentle touch, and yet each deals with violent death—there’s a weird way in which both films seem to be part of a Twin Peaks metaverse.
Touching the Skin of Eeriness is almost an hour long, and was apparently intended as a prelude to a bigger project, as yet unrealized. We begin (and periodically return to) rehearsal sessions of two young men, played by Shota Sometani and Hoshi Ishida, practicing a dance performance that involves close, responsive movement but no touching. The film opens out to include other people in their lives, much of which is ordinary enough—except that something ominous courses beneath the surface of it all. I’m not entirely sure how Hamaguchi does that; the rhythm of the thing, and the repetition of certain key locations, creates the thrum of unease. We might also cite the image one of the dancers uses to describe how to create the pas de deux, as he suggests that he be the water and the other the fish—or should it be the other way around?
That movie feels incomplete, I suppose deliberately so, given its nature as the opening chapter of a larger project. Heaven Is Still Far Away has that quality as well, but in this 38-minute film the unanswered questions are part of the melancholy of the central situation, which includes the death of a young woman some years earlier. I won’t say exactly how this manifests itself, because part of the shiver of the movie is realizing oh this is what’s going on, but it involves three characters and a supernatural element. It also involves moviemaking; one character is making a personal documentary, and another has a job pixilating the naughty bits for porno films.
The film is made up of only a handful of scenes, but they really land. There’s one sequence, a conversation in a café—just two very precisely-chosen angles make up the entirety of the set-ups for the scene—that will convince you that Hamaguchi is a master at staging conversations and making them dynamic. Of course, if you’ve seen his other films, you are already convinced. But I’m grateful for the chance to see these two rare examples of a deft directing hand.
April 8, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.