I kept seeing this one—a Japanese movie which won the Academy Award for best foreign feature film—in The Quad listings and trying to get to it, but the timing during the day (my usual movie-going time) just wasn’t working. I was so happy when Paul noticed it, too, and suggested we use some sitter time to check it out.
Departures is the story of Daigo Kobayashi, a passionate cellist, with a dream job in an orchestra, who finds himself abruptly out of job—and in huge debt for a very pricey cello-- when the orchestra dissolves.
What do you do when your dream has fizzled and you’ve got to re-group?
You go home, and you look for another job. Daigo and his apparently unflappable wife, Miko, head to Hirano, in northeastern Japan, where Daigo grew up. Daigo has inherited the house he grew up in from his mother, who died while he was abroad some years earlier. (His father abandoned the family when he was a child.)
Daigo sees a job listing for handling “departures” that doesn’t require experience, and, assuming its some sort of job with a travel agency, figures he’ll apply. Turns out that “departures” was a typo. It’s the departed that he’ll have to handle.
The business is all about “casketing,” i.e. a Japanese ritual in which dead bodies are prepared for the casket, and, at the end of the ceremony, placed in the casket. And it pays really well.
Daigo, who has never witnessed a death nor been part of memorializing one, can’t say no. He’s enticed by the money and Sasaki, the endearing curmudgeon who owns the business, and he’s frankly too nice and well intentioned to find a way to back out of the situation. He ends up going along for the ride.
It’s a great ride.
Departures, like Ghosted, is a window into another culture’s approach to death. And it’s an interesting one. On the one hand, the ritual of casketing is truly gorgeous—a reverential process that involves symbolically wiping away the pain accrued during time on earth, dressing the body in burial clothes, and making the person up (if the family requests it), to look their best, before placing them in the casket. All things that happen here, at a mortuary, but behind closed doors.
Here you, and the family, who sit nearby, see it up close. You’d think that a culture that created this lovely ceremony would be better at handling these situations than we are. Nope, at least, not according to the movie. Turns out the Japanese are just as death-leery as Americans. Daigo is too embarrassed to tell his wife what he’s up to. He lets her assume he’s working for a travel agency. (There’s a predictable reveal and accompanying drama over this one.) And he's ostracized by people in the community who disdain what he's doing.
And the grief-stricken families are just as un-done and un-resigned to death as those we know. Each death, each family, brings it’s own assortment of heartbreaking and sometimes funny complications. The beautiful young woman, a suicide, who they discover, in the process of casketing her, is actually a man, leaving the two casketers in a quandary: make “her” up as a woman or man? The fight that breaks out, among the family and friends, over the question of who’s responsible for death of a young girl killed on a motorbike.
We see it all. So do Daigo and Sasaki. And we watch as people struggle to come to terms with their losses. Along the way, there’s a nod to the “ambiguous” ceremony-less losses in life—people, gone but not dead, and dreams, for instance—and how hard it is to wrestle with them, as well.
It’s all very real, and very touching. Ultimately there are many opportunities for one realization: It’s a privilege to be here, walking around, living our lives, and the death of a loved one, and even someone you don’t know well, is an opportunity to honor that fact both for the other person—and for yourself.
I left the movie humming with appreciation, both for the movie and my life.
All I needed to hear about this movie was that it explored the aftermath of grief and loss and, of course, I was interested. (To anyone unfamiliar with my history, the loss of my brother when I was 14 left me with an apparently life-long interest in these topics.)
So, last Thursday, on a pre-school day when we should have been working, Paul and I caught the 1 p.m. show at The Quad. Ghosted is the story of Sophie Schmitt, a Hamburg-based video artist, and her lover, Aing-Li, a young woman from Taiwan. They meet when Aing-Li travels to Germany to visit an uncle, work in his restaurant, and uncover a secret about her birth.
We learn all of this in flashback. The movie actually begins the tale after Aing-Li’s death. We don’t know how it happened for quite awhile. Or why. All we know is that Sophie, who we first meet as she opens a video installation entitled “Remembrance” in Taiwan, featuring Aing-Li, is sad, confused and lonely.
Enter Mei-Li, a Taiwanese journalist who first appears at the opening, trying, earnestly, to cajole Sophie into an interview about her relationship with Aing-Li. Both women are drawn to one another, so much so that Sophie drops her guard and agrees to hang out with Mei-Li for the day, though she knows Mei-Li plans to write about it.
The day doesn’t end well. And so unfolds a push-pull storyline in which Mei-Li keeps popping back up in unexpected places, trying to investigate the story of Aing-Li’s death. For a while, it feels very much like a detective story—with the potential for an unexpected truth looming around the corner. Ultimately, it's about searching from both sides--the living and the dead.
And I’d love to say more about that, but I’d spoil the tension for you if I did.
I really liked this movie. There’s not a whole lot of depth or “ah-ha” to it. There aren’t any huge revelations about the nature of grief and loss. When the credits were rolling, I leaned over to Paul and said, “What I like most about these movies is the sense that they’re visual travelogues.”
It’s true. We see Taiwan. We see Hamburg. We see it from an urban perspective. And we see it from the perspective of strangers visiting those countries. It’s also a travelogue on death and lost loved ones from a Taiwanese perspective.
As I said, it’s not a huge movie by any means, not in financing or in its point. But I did really enjoy it—and I was only a tiny bit wistful about not having spent the time working (huge for me). I’m grateful to co-writers Astrid Stroher and Monica Treut (who also directed) for this small window on the way another culture sees loss.
Here's a story: A few years back, pre-Henry, so at least three, and probably four, I was at a movie theater (19th and Broadway) watching "Kill Bill." I was really enjoying it, but I had a familiar quandary on my hands: When to pee? (Apologies to the squeamish, who might want to cut and run, because it only gets worse from here.)
If was not a question. I always get the big Diet Coke. I LOVE the big Diet Coke. I can FINISH the big Diet Coke. But, inevitably, it means at least one trip, sometimes, two, to the restroom. And that means I've become rather good--or let's say rather interested in--learning to pick the best time to bolt for five minutes.
I'm pretty good at picking the right throw away moment in films to do this. Sadly, there are a lot of them. But in this case, we're talking Quentin Tarantino, who, with his cut-and-paste, out-of-sequence style, can be pretty hard to read. (Is he TRYING to mess with people who dare to eat and drink during movies? I wouldn't put it past him.)
I picked a quiet moment, when Uma Thurman is on the plane, crossing out names on her hit-list, to run. I was gone for maybe five minutes. When I came back, I couldn't get in, because the doors were open and people were streaming out the doors. Turns out, the movie was a two-parter, and, true to Tarantino's style, he'd concluded the first one at an unexpected out-of-sequence moment.
It was funny. Sort of.
So I was in hysterics (and very grateful) when Paul, my husband, who is quite familiar with my Diet Coke issues (and is frequently counted upon to recount what I've missed), sent me this article, about a guy who has established a web site telling you the opportune moments to bolt for a restroom break during new releases.
What a guy!!!! (Mr. Runpee, not Paul, though I like him, too.)
The site is http://runpee.com. And it's available as iPhone App. Too bad I don't have an iPhone. But I can check out the website, pre-movie, if I'm motivated enough. This won't help, I might add, in those movies that are so good, or so tight, that there really IS no opportune moment for a break. (I call these don't-get-the-big-Diet-Coke movies...creative, eh?).
But there are few like those, alas. Most of them are eminently intermission-able. And when they're not, there's always Paul.
I had the normal upbringing with regard to movies, which is to say I went occasionally but nobody, including me, made too big a deal out of them. That changed in my mid-twenties, when I lived, for a brief and unhappy year, in Chicago. I knew few people, didn’t have a lot of work, was lonely, and needed to entertain myself. I discovered that I loved going to movies alone. That they left me in a contemplative, introspective state of mind that I really enjoyed.
When I moved to New York and began freelancing, I found that going to movies helped me write. I’d review my notes on a story, go to a movie, come back, sit down and the story—which had nothing at all to do with the movie—would just pour out. Maybe I was letting my subconscious work while the rest of my brain enjoyed itself. Maybe it was that contemplative state of mind I was talking about. Who knows? The only thing I really knew for sure was that it worked.
When I was writing my first book, I often saw a movie every morning as a prelude to the afternoon’s work. That meant I saw A LOT of movies, some great, some awful. You can’t be too picky when you’re seeing movies at that pace. My favorite movie experience during that time was when I went to see “Lord of the Rings.”
I had not read the books. It was long. I hadn’t read any reviews—I almost never read reviews (too many spoilers, and the critics’ views have a way of worming their way into your brain). I wasn’t totally thrilled about it, but I had few other choices. It was lunchtime, and on the way I stopped, on impulse, at Murray’s and got a sesame bagel with whitefish salad. And I picked up my customary enormous diet coke on the way in.
Well. The movie was beautiful—it was shot in New Zealand—and enormously entertaining. It had Ian Mackellan in it (a big plus), and the bagel with whitefish salad and (it almost goes without saying) the diet coke were sublime. And it was a LONG movie. So I really got to relish the experience. It was, in short…perfection. And that, my friends, is how this blog--which is, in essence, a movie lover's diary--got its name.