CANNES REVIEW: No Snoring During Hanezu! Though Who Could Blame You?

It's 11:45 on Tuesday night in Cannes, and seemingly just outside my window are the loudest fireworks I've ever heard. Good thing I'm not asleep yet, and too bad I'm not still in tonight's screening of Naomi Kawase's Hanezu, one of the slowest competition films I've seen since I've been here. The audible snorer a few rows ahead of me could have used a firecracker or two to jolt him awake.

Hanezu is hardly a terrible film, though I did see more walkouts than I've seen at any Cannes screening yet. (A friend who attended an earlier screening reported serious walkouts at that one, too.) The picture opens with scenes from some sort of mountain excavation -- we see rocky dirt being tossed onto conveyor belts, on its way to who knows where. Then there are some glowing shots of mountains, and a voice-over track explaining how two of these mountains -- apparently, boy mountains -- once vied for the love of the third, femme mountain.

Then we get into the real story, to the extent that we can discern it: Takumi (Tohta Komizu) and Kayoko (Hako Oshima) live together, possibly somewhere near these mountains (though that's not exactly clear, or probably even necessary), going about their daily lives: He chops vegetables for the lunch they'll eat together; she dyes scarves in vibrant colors, hanging them to dry in the sun. Later, he'll ask her what she dyed. "Scarves," she'll reply.

That's about as fast as Hanezu ever moves, and I can see why it would try an audience's patience. (My pal the critic Melissa Anderson likened it to "spa music.") These are characters who seem to be waiting for their lives to take shape, and Kawase doesn't really know what to do with them in the meantime. She does have a lovely visual sense -- her landscapes seem to have a pulse. But she's less successful at integrating her characters into these lovely surroundings, or, for that matter, at allowing them to find their place in their own skins. Characters make broad announcements -- "I'm having a baby!" "I aborted the baby!" "I love someone else!" -- in ways that seem intended to perk up the narrative, rather than serve the characters or the story (minimal though it may be) in any genuine way.

Hanezu is based on a novel by Masako Bando -- maybe there is some kind of sturdy narrative there that Kawase just hasn't drawn out successfully. The movie ends with more shots of those rocks tumbling by on conveyor belts, and subtitles that explain that the Asuka region, the birthplace of Japanese civilization, is only now being excavated. Now she tells us. Obviously, this fact has great significance in terms of Japanese history. But if Kawase is trying to draw some connection between her characters and this lost but possibly semi-recoverable past, even her dream logic is maddeningly hazy. I stuck with Hanezu 'til the end, and I've seen much duller movies. But it's a particular kind of frustrating failure: A movie that gives you just enough texture and detail to make you want to understand it, and then leaves you wondering if there's anything to understand in the first place.