Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has produced a film that has touched upon one of the most sensitive issues for contemporary Japanese filmmakers: terrorist cults. Even though Koreeda’s film is fictional, there is always the inevitable comparison with the Aum cult sarin gas attack. There are a number of films, such as Canary, dealing with this sensitive problem. However, no filmmaker has probed the aftermath of the issue so poignantly and innovatively as Koreeda.
Distance has a very basic story: four people related to the deceased cult members, and an ex-member, visit the sect’s former headquarters to mark the anniversary of their deaths. The visitors confide in each other by recalling memories of their family. Lengthy amounts of dialogue between the mourners push the film along at an extremely slow pace. Although this may be a little too tiresome for some to sit through, it does finally amount to a poignant and touching pastiche of the lives of those associated with cult members. Interspersed with the dialogue are vivid flashbacks of moments before the cult members’ suicide. It’s during these flashbacks that Koreeda really excels as a filmmaker; the level of detail that he gets from his performers and crew vividly colour the entire film.
Despite the extensive amount of dialogue, it is unclear what Koreeda is really trying to articulate in this film. At times, it’s difficult to surmise what the visitors are there for: is it salvation for their departed loved ones, apology, respect or just sentimentality? This is even more confusing in light of the character named Sakata (played by Asano Todanobu) who used to be one of the cult’s ex-members. This vagueness isn’t a negative attribute, but rather elicits conflicting feelings within the viewer – feelings of (a) resentment for what the cult did and (b) sorrow for the tragic loss of their lives.
Aside from the film’s basic plot, the most notable aspect is likely to be its stylistic attributes. Most widely talked about are Koreeda’s roving camera, long takes and minimalist soundtrack. These aspects provide the film with a sense of realism. The realist approach complements the dialogue-heavy scenes well, as if the characters are documenting their memories. At other times, the stylistic attributes work in a contrasting manner, providing the film with a haunting presence which lingers on well after you have finished watching the film.
Overall, Koreeda has created an extremely rewarding film, in which his direction is infallible and the performances are outstanding, especially from the always excellent Asano Todanobu.