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It’s essential for all great film makers to evolve, develop and shake up their game a little from time to time, and so while anyone expecting Japanese genius auteur Sono Sion’s latest to be another murderous and nihilistic exploration of the dark corners of human sexuality might be disappointed, “The Land of Hope” was in many way a vital film for him to have made, and, given the subject matter, an immensely brave and rewarding one. Following on from, though taking a different direction to his previous work “Himizu”, the film again sees Sono influenced by the disaster that struck Japan on March 11th 2011, this time following the experiences of a small town family torn apart after a meltdown in their local nuclear plant. Seeing the director continuing his meditation on the future of Japan in the wake of the catastrophe, the film is a moving and deeply humanistic work, which has proved very popular at a variety of festivals around the world, helping to raise awareness of the issues it tackles.
Set in the fictional Nagashima Prefecture (its name a combination of the prefectures of the real world disaster), the film opens with neighbours the Ono and the Suzuki families living quiet lives in their rural town. After a massive earthquake hits, setting off an explosion at the nearby nuclear power plant, the Suzukis leave, while the Onos decide to stay put, father Ono Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi, “Andalucia: Revenge of the Goddess”, who sadly passed away in May 2013) being sure that things are safe enough and preferring to stay in the family home, located right on the mandatory evacuation line. However, with a climate of fear building due to mixed messages from the authorities, Yasuhiko pushes his son Yoichi (Murakami Jun, “Himizu”) to leave with his pregnant wife Izumi (Kagurazaka Izumi, “Guilty of Romance”), leaving the old man to care for his ailing wife Chieko (Otani Naoko, “Apartment 1313”), who is suffering from the onset of dementia.
“The Land of Hope” was a co-production between Japan, Taiwan and the UK (marking the production debut of noted Asian releaser Third Window Films), which is very fitting, as it’s a film which deserves to be seen and digested beyond a domestic or cult audience. A great companion piece to “Himizu”, the two films do share several elements, chiefly that they were both shot by Sono in the real disaster area in Northeast Japan. However, despite its supposedly fictional setting, “The Land of Hope” is by far the more grounded of the two, and indeed of any of the director’s recent works, having more in common with his sadly under-seen 2009 father and son drama “Be Sure to Share”. Optimistic is definitely the word to use here, rather than upbeat, as while the film does offer a warm look and believable look at the actions and reactions of everyday people in the face of cataclysmic events, it’s at the same time sombre and frequently painful to watch.
The film is quietly involving and emotional throughout, using the plight of the Ono family to chart the effects of the disaster on three different generations, from the elderly to the unborn, and through this Sono underlines and explores its impact on Japan’s past, present and future. Balancing an at times documentary style detachment with a genuine sympathy and connection with its characters, the film at every turn places the viewer convincingly in the middle of the increasingly tense and hopeless situation. At the same time, there’s a certain wry comedy and dark irony to the film, Sono finding humour of sorts in the Onos’ behaviour, in particular in Izumi’s growing fear, which sees her donning full radiation gear and walking the streets while other residents stop and stare. Such scenes are both funny and chilling, highlighting the fact that, exactly as in the real life nuclear meltdowns, the public are kept largely in the dark and ignorant as to the facts regarding nuclear fallout and radiation. Without ever resorting to rabble rousing or cheap shots at the government, this gives the film a distinctly cynical air at times, though one which is directed very much at the people in power rather than the common people.
As a result, “The Land of Hope” stands not only as a very moving and intimate drama, but as a masterfully constructed piece of social criticism, and indeed a passionate but measured attempt to hammer home the human cost. Another triumph for Sono Sion, the film is a challenging, hard-hitting and very human piece of cinema, and a work of genuine heart and importance that should appeal to and be appreciated by a wider audience than the director’s usual fan base.
Shion Sono (director) / Shion Sono (screenplay)
CAST: Isao Natsuyagi … Yasuhiko ono
Naoko Ohtani … Chieko ono
Jun Murakami … Yoichi ono
Megumi Kagurazaka … Izumi ono
Hikari Kajiwara … Yoko
Yutaka Shimizu … Mitsuru suzuki