Knight at the Movies Archives
A wistful masterpiece, a jaunty, stylish comedy of manners
I want to have my funeral in Japan. That was my thought as I walked out of the intensely moving, lyrical Departures, the surprise
winner for this year’s foreign film Oscar. “Surprise” because the little known film took the prize over the highly touted The Class and
Waltz with Bashir. Guess what? Academy voters got it right. Departures from director Yojiro Takita is a beautifully realized tone
poem to life – and death. In the course of Takita’s movie the characters deal with a lot of Big Themes – love, betrayal, forgiveness,
embracing tradition, coming to terms with our past and our social prejudices, artistic dreams vs. artistic reality, and more – all
delicately layered into Kundo Koyama’s dense but never heavy script. The film, ten years in the making, is picturesque and graceful
with touches of gentle comedy, awash in lovely images and a gorgeous music score by Joe Hisaishi with one poetic sequence
At the outset of the film Daigo (Masahiro Motoki, who looks a bit like Lou Diamond Phillips and holds the viewer with a deeply felt
performance) is a professional cellist who through years of hard work has finally realized his dream – a spot in a professional
orchestra in Tokyo. But classical orchestras in Japan – a culture steeped in classical music – are a dime a dozen and this one hasn’t
got much of an audience. When the new owner abruptly announces that the orchestra’s dissolved Daijo is forced to examine some
hard truths. Though to us he seems to be a master of his instrument he knows better (this is the curse of musicians who are good
enough for the general public but not the hardened professionals that they are competing with). Without the hard won job he won’t
be able to pay for the expensive cello he’s bought but luckily, after a moment’s hesitation, his perky, supportive wife Mika (Ryoko
Hirouse) suggests they move back to Yamagata, his hometown, into the small house his mother has left him in her will to start a
Daigo finds that he’s relieved to sell the cello but once the move is made he has to find a job. He spots an ad in the paper that
reads “working with departures – no experience necessary” and thinking it’s a travel agency, decides to apply. But it’s a misprint and
should have read “working with the departed.” The job is to help out with “encoffination,” the Japanese ritual in which the body is
prepared in full view of the mourners before it is placed in the casket and then cremated. A great deal of social prejudice comes with
this task but the money the practical boss Sasaki (Tstutomu Yamazaki) offers him is too good to turn down.
Daigo’s first duty is almost too much – he is to model as a dead body in a video about how to go about the ritual (when glimpsed in
the traditional sumo outfit the gay male portion of the audience will quickly discern something else about Daigo – he’s hot stuff).
But slowly as the seasons pass (during an oddly endearing montage) Daigo learns to appreciate the precision, importance and
dignity inherent in the job. As he watches Sasaki at work he begins to see the elegiac beauty in the ceremony itself and value the
intricacies. Each time we see the respectful ceremony of preparing the dead for cremation in which the body is discreetly washed,
dressed and made up in front of the mourners, the ritual becomes more profound and artistic (one of the ceremonies for a
transgendered female, an apparent suicide, is particularly moving). At the same time, Daigo is overwhelmed by memories of his
late mother and the father that left when he was just a child. There’s a memorable sequence where he picks up his childhood cello –
a gift from the father – and is transported back in time as he plays the father’s favorite piece, Takita simply and poetically shows the
powerful hold the past has on us when a musician plays – or non musicians hear – certain pieces of music.
Then Mika learns the true nature of Daigo’s job, he experiences prejudice from boyhood friends because of his choice of profession
and the elusive father slowly comes into focus. As these threads combine Daigo is deciding whether he’s found his true calling and
will take to heart the simple wisdom and dignified example of his pragmatic boss who privately comments to him, “The living eat the
dead unless they’re plants.”
Filled with expressive, contemplative scenes and performances that are quietly powerful, Departures is a sensitive, bittersweet
masterpiece that earns its tears honestly. Subtitled.
Stephan Elliott, the openly gay director noted for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert returns to filmmaking after suffering a
life altering skiing accident in 2004 with a frothy adaptation of the Noel Coward comedy of manners play Easy Virtue (also the
basis for an early Hitchcock film). Jessica Biel stars as Larita, a madcap racecar driver from America who smokes, drinks and makes
no secret of her passion for her new husband, the sexy John (Ben Barnes), the scion of a snobbish but stony broke English family
that welcomes him home with open arms and his new wife with the cold shoulder.
The movie, set in the roaring twenties combines the eccentric character elements of Gosford Park and the dizzy froth of Miss Pettigrew
Lives for a Day and is a sort of jazz age Monster-in-Law with Biel’s hot little platinum blond pistol pitted against John’s mother, the
implacable, overbearing Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas) who presides over her down on their luck, tweedy family with an iron fist and
rattles Larita with venomous comments like, “Hilda isn’t as experienced as your wife.” Beat. “No one is.” Colin Firth plays her
distracted, henpecked husband and there are also two gawky sisters, a pair of comedic servants, and a runty, obnoxious lap dog
that is the family pride and joy and the bane of Larita’s existence.
The action, which includes a climactic ball and a hunt scene directly out of Mame, is set in the crumbling down estate the family clings
to as the mother hopes that Little Lord Spoiled Brat will take on the burden of running the place. But Larita has other plans and
wants her husband off to the next race as soon as her speeding roadster can carry them. The madcap pace of the film is helped
along by new, jaunty renditions of a raft of Coward tunes including “Mad About the Boy” and hot jazz baby arrangements of some
oddities like “Car Wash” (which actually work quite well).
Elliott’s got all the right elements and the film zips along but his conception has one rather noticeable sore thumb in the cocktail
shaker – Biel, who simply doesn’t have much talent for brittle comedy and is hopelessly out of her element around the other actors
who make hay out of the sharp dialogue exchanges. Biel displays a light vocal touch with a few songs but she doesn’t have much
variety in the speaking department – certainly not enough to make her lines zing. Later, though, she gets better when the depth of
the character enters in and we see what Larita’s had to do to rise “above her station.” And every time Firth enters the scene – my
God – he’s just effortlessly terrific as is Thomas as the horrid mother.
Biel’s rather lumpen line readings aside, Easy Virtue has enough stylish zest and laughs to make is an easy recommendation.
Expanded Edition of 5-27-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.