When we evoke the prison movie as a genre, most of us recall images of tough men, butch women and their helpless, puny victims in the washroom. Prisons are where social outcasts hatch remarkably intelligent and daring escapes and where frustrated wardens exemplify the injustices of power hierarchies. Prisons are low culture, high function institutions. In a prison, life is bleak.
Doing Time is a wonderfully gentle subversion of the despairing prison movie. How gentle? Replacing the starkness of the concrete exercise yard is a spacious baseball field sprinkled with daisies. How subversive? When our thoughtful and reserved narrator is treated to the genre’s obligatory period of forced isolation, ironically it invigorates and elucidates his concept of personal freedom. Even the depiction of food is atypical. So often a stereotype of goulash and non-specific chunks of grey matter, the meals here are a vibrant montage of colourful dishes, steaming aromas and delightfully satisfied facial expressions. You still wouldn’t want to do time here, but life could be far worse.
Sai throws the director’s manipulation handbook out with the laundry and allows us to summon our own thoughts and feelings about Hanawa’s brush with the penal system. Hanawa has a gleaming eye for detail and his interior monologue describes the fascinating small things that carry large meanings only when we think about them for too long. We are invited to attune ourselves to this kind of close perception, and to gain pleasure from the tiny experiences that become important within any restrictive or dominating social system. In contrast to the genre filmmakers who fast pitch their concepts with oppressive heat, Sai’s delicate and beguiling knuckleballs give us some room to move at the plate.
Doing Time was one my favourite experiences at the 52nd Melbourne International Film Festival. As a ‘small’ film about ‘simple’ things, it provided more tofu for thought than so many other spectacular and intense accounts of peculiar behaviour in our times.