© 2010 Breath

Birthright (2010)

Day 7 of the Tokyo International Film Festival.

The festival program has this to say about the Japanese film Birthright: “Birthright was conceptualized for theatrical screening only. Imagery reaches the limit of darkness while both sound and dialogue are stripped to the bone. Length: 108 minutes. Audiences will be glued to their seats.” This struck me as either the hyperbole of a first-time director writing a synopsis of his own film, or just awkwardly translated Japanese, but it did pique my interest in the film. As a member of the press, I attended a Q&A and photo call before the screening, and found the two stars are Japanese actresses in their late teens/early 20s, much like those that appear in every outlet of mass media here. This made me not want to stay for the film, but the MC at the Q&A kept going on about how demanding the roles played by the two actresses must have been. I decided to stay for the screening and was glad I did—Birthright turned out to be the best new Japanese film I have seen in quite a while.

The film opens with a slowly-paced scene without music and scant dialogue heard from a distance. A young woman is observing a family with a high school student daughter. After several days of this, she approaches the girl on the way to school and introduces herself as a student at a neighboring high school. The stranger encourages her to skip class in order to meet a boy who has a crush on her. When they go to meet him, they find his empty car parked on the side of the road. The stranger suddenly handcuffs the student to the car seat, blindfolds her, and drives off. The audience is then put in the position of the kidnapped girl, as the blind fold is placed over the camera, and we hear only the sounds of kicking and struggling drowned out by the car’s engine. The student awakens locked into an empty warehouse and, like the audience, has no idea where she is. The film continues mostly with two characters in a single location, without music and largely without dialogue, but manages to create tension nevertheless. The camera only occasionally moves outside the warehouse to show the kidnapped girl’s mother, who has a terrible secret that prevents her from going to the police. Through a few curt phone calls and messages tapped out on cell phones, we learn that this was not a random crime, but a planned one, and there is a link between the two girls.

The original Japanese title of film is saitai, which means umbilical cord, and this is perhaps a bit too overt. The heart-rending climax is fraught with mother/daughter symbolism which is a heavy-handed, but it is shot with such beautiful minimalism, that it is easy to forgive the excesses.

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