IFFR 2022 review: Yamabuki (Yamasaki Juichiro)

“Yamasaki’s quiet cinema and the strong performances of his actors give Yamabuki a quality that lingers long after the credits have rolled.”

Ten years ago director Yamasaki Juichiro brought his first film The Sound of Light to Rotterdam, and a decade later he is back with his third film Yamabuki (and in the main competition this time). It’s not just a return to where it all started for him in cinema, but also a return to his hometown of Maniwa in the mountainous region of Chugoku, which was also the setting of his debut. Chugoku is home to a mining industry that has brought in a sizeable immigrant workforce. Set against this background, Yamabuki spins a web of interconnected lives to shed light on a society where confrontation is avoided, while also giving poignant commentary on the way modern Japan treats its migrant workers and serving up a study on what it means to find a home. While the plotting at times may come off as too convenient, Yamasaki’s quiet cinema and the strong performances of his actors give Yamabuki a quality that lingers long after the credits have rolled.

The days of Chang-su (Kang Yoon-soo) as an equestrian athlete on South Korea’s Olympic team are a thing of the past. Huge debts incurred after his father’s business went bankrupt have forced him to quit and move to Japan to find work. He spends his days, part-time at least, working in a stone quarry in Maniwa. Many of his colleagues are immigrants too who have left behind home and family. In contrast, Chang-su has found a new family of sorts, or at least a surrogate one: he lives with Minami (Wada Misa) and her young daughter, although their relationship is not a romantic one. Seven years ago Minami left her home, running from an abusive husband.

Inspired by her mother, Yamabuki (Inori Kilala) is a teenage girl with a burning passion for activism, manifesting itself in her joining silent street protests against a range of issues, including the treatment of migrant workers. This behavior dismays her father (Kawase Yohta), a policeman in pursuit of a bunch of local gangsters. They live together without a mother, as Yamabuki’s mom is indefinitely away from home for her job as a war correspondent. Slowly but surely the lives of all characters start to intertwine, setting off an avalanche of hidden emotions that circle around the longing for stability and a place to call home.

The way these characters get connected, even if niftily connected visually, can feel convoluted and ironic, making Yamasaki’s screenplay the least interesting aspect of Yamabuki. The plotting is mostly a crutch for Yamasaki to paint a picture of modern Japanese society in which opening up to another person is not a step lightly taken. Both Yamabuki and Chang-su are in search of connection and a safe haven, she torn between her father representing authority and the group of activists representing her independent mother, and he looking to Minami and her daughter in hope of finding a family. This is deftly connected to the plight of migrant workers leaving families and loved ones behind in their home countries. Chang-su’s co-workers share pictures of newborns that they rarely see, and Chang-su himself finds it difficult to connect to his natural family in South Korea when he only talks to them over the phone.

There is a lingering feeling of loneliness in the characters throughout the film, as they desperately seek to be touched by another soul. Kang Yoon-soo and Wada Misa deliver soulful performances, and Inori Kilali’s stoic Yamabuki adds to a strong set of characters, and it is in the characterization that Yamasaki’s screenplay really shines. A string of broken families has formed these characters: Chang-su who broke away from his by coming to Japan, Minami and her daughter breaking up hers by fleeing her husband, Yamabuki and her father ending up in a broken family when their mother and wife left to pursue her job. Each has a part of themselves missing, a part they hope to find again in other characters to make them whole again. Shot on grainy 16mm by DP Tawara Kenta, Yamabuki is more a mood piece and character study than it is a tight plot, examining aspects of contemporary Japan that are rarely shown in other films, but it is a film that leaves an unexpected impact once it reaches its conclusion.