Cannes 2017 review: Radiance (Naomi Kawase)

The sand sculpture of a naked woman collapses. The deafening sound of crashing waves. An old photograph of two murky figures in front of the setting sun casts its shadow to the present. The haunting image of a man desperately trying to climb up a crumbling dune. Golden hour light passes through a glass prism and turns into countless colorful beams of light that flicker on the skin of exhausted bodies. Scattered clouds dance and dissolve quietly in the sky. The quiet rustling of tree branches in a breeze. The blurred and hazy vision of a partially-sighted man. These were the first images that came into my mind when I started thinking about this meditative piece of cinema that will surely be appreciated by fans of thoughtful, low-key character studies and delicately gentle storytelling.

A film about the power of image and the importance of words, Naomi Kawase’s Radiance is an earnest, well-intentioned and relatively successful look at the evanescence of life, the blurring of memories, the impermanence of things and human empathy. In spite of the film’s irregular flaws in the execution of its (potentially too many) ideas, it retains an exciting richness, operating as an abstract and poetic apotheosis of art and its importance in life. Fascinated by traditional rites and mythical tales and inspired by a pantheistic spirituality, Kawase’s cinema has always explored the dichotomy between existence and non-existence, the never-ending cycle of life and death, the inevitability of loss and the therapeutic and threatening powers of nature. Her films burst the physical confines of earthly realism and delve into a quietly revelatory journey in search of meaning.

Raised in the ancient rural prefecture of Nara, Kawase has experimented with both fiction and non-fiction storytelling throughout her career. In the last few years she has tried to balance her arthouse sensibilities with a more accessible directorial approach and provide her films with mainstream appeal (Still the Water was a significantly more successful attempt than Sweet Bean, which fell into saccharine sentimentality). From the elegiac Suzaku which explores the sociopolitical decline in Japan and the testing of familial bonds, to the masterful Shara, a cryptic and enigmatic tale of rebirth and coming to terms with loss, to the allegorical Mourning Forest about reconciliation and the acceptance of death, to the exotic Nanayo which focuses on modern society’s alienation and the process of healing, to Hanezu about the inescapability of faith and the deeply rooted myths and traditions of Japan, to Still the Water about the ceremonial celebration of death catharsis, to Sweet Bean which worships the tiniest moments of affection and understanding in our daily routine, Kawase had always explored the family dynamics, the melancholy state of disillusionment and the integral relationship between man and nature.

This film concerns Misako Ozaki (subtly and naturally performed by Ayame Misaki), a disillusioned woman who writes film audio descriptions for the visually impaired. During a special screening, she meets Masaya Nakamori (a touching turn by Masatoshi Nagase), a partially-sighted photographer who serves on a special committee of visually impaired people who offer their views, constructive criticism and textural interpretations of Misako’s work. Nakamori is particularly harsh towards Misako’s film versions and starts modifying the used words to describe the non-speaking sections of the film. This incident, though, becomes the catalyst for closer encounters between these two troubled and lonely people. Nakamori is trying to come to terms with the gradual loss of his eyesight and, therefore, continues working with his camera until the last glimmer of hope is lost. Meanwhile, Misako worries about her mother’s physical and mental deterioration as she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and is still haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her father when she was a child.

How can one describe a feeling or the emotional state of a film character? Does this not require a personal take? Is it not the result of subjectivity? Should every part of a film – and any art form in general – be communicated (or even explained in detail) or should there be enough space for personal interpretation? And how can this be achieved in the case of visually impaired people who are limited to using their imagination in order to visualize the film’s images? And, last but not least, is it possible to capture a moment, when it is at its purest and most beautiful, at the time of its disappearance? Kawase interprets the themes of listening, observing and imagining as not only the substantial elements that define a work of art (and as a result the interplay between art and spectator) but also as the necessary tools of communication and understanding.

The richness of Kawase’s ideas makes for an intriguing and complex film. A love letter to cinema and the creative process, its meta-cinematic approach provides an intricate take on the purpose of art and the beauty of observation. The mediums of cinema and photographs are used to illustrate the difficulty of capturing a fleeting moment’s beauty before it vanishes in front of our eyes. Apart from the intellectual appeal, though, Radiance is also deeply humane: it explores the beauty of emotional directness and openness, the ability to communicate and the fundamental essence of being. The execution is not entirely successful though. An intrusive, mawkish piano motif undermines the detailed mise en scène, and there are moments when Kawase’s genuine earnestness and meditative take on art and human connection veer into sentimentality.

Simple yet not simplistic, Radiance can be considered the summation of Kawase’s artistic attempt to capture the elusive nature of beauty and personify the act of interpretation. By transposing the medium of cinema from primarily visual to exclusively aural, Kawase plays on a form of sensory existentialism, in order to expose emotions that are being kept buried inside, and to examine the inevitability of loss and death. In spite of the story’s tendency to become a (maybe too) sentimental romance, the inventive concept as well as the filmmaker’s lyrical sensibility elevate Radiance to a warm experience that blends its intellectual themes with rare emotional honesty. As an exploration of the limitations and frailty of human existence, destined to dissolve and disintegrate exactly like the sand sculpture’s collapse, Kawase’s latest film is a moving iridescent journey into the sensory pleasures and indescribable beauty of simply being alive.