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Distance (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2001)
Hirokazu Kore-edaís third feature, Distance, is a singularly melancholy drama that, like Shinji Aoyamaís Eureka, is inescapably informed by the Aum cultís deadly 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway. A radio news report in the opening moments of the movie informs the audience that the film is set on the third anniversary of a (fictional) poison water attack, perpetrated by a small cult who called themselves ďThe Ark of TruthĒ. It's revealed that 128 people died as a result of these attacks, so when Kore-eda begins to introduce a group of seemingly unconnected characters who meet on the anniversary of the attacks, itís only natural for the audience to assume that they are related to the victims. After about half an hour of time spent with these people, however, comes the surprising revelation that we're watching those who were related to the perpetrators, and not the victims, of the attack. With that shift, the movie becomes a reminder of the emotions of the victims most often forgotten in such tragedies, and a much more complex examination of their sorrow. Because of more astringent issues of blame and anger, their grief is almost inconsolable, which makes for a frustrating experience for viewers expecting emotional closure. Distance is a movie that stews in its most unknowable questions of responsibility, guilt, and remorse.
If it worked with the same feel-good vibe and universal sense of understanding of Kore-eda's After Life, Distance would betray itself. Its rambling nature, difficult as it might be to sit through at times (though only 130 minutes long, it feels closer to three hours), is in retrospect a definite asset. When the surviving relatives of the executors of the water poisoning find themselves stranded at the cultís remote, now-defunct homestead, they are forced to examine their demons more thoughtfully. They meet up with one of the surviving members of the old cult, and the movie begins a series of flashbacks that detail the personalities of those who died and their relationships to the living. Kore-edaís tone remains impartial, opting, for example, to never make clear the motivations behind the cultís formation or the decision to poison the water supply. ďAfter everything in this world is washed away, only the chosen few would remainĒ, says a policeman describing the cultís rumored motive during an interrogation, but the cult member heís questioning demurs at the suggestion, saying, with complete conviction, that he couldnít comprehend the leadersí agenda. Even the scattered flashbacks of the membersí separations with their families donít add up to a full picture of the story. Each further revelation about them only further drives home the actís senselessness. As a result, healing is slow in coming for those left with unanswered questions. Nothing, even contact with those who can understand their grief, is anodyne for these people. The movie doggedly maintains an outsiderís perspective, albeit one seeped through with compassion.
A few of Distanceís characters, despite ample screen time, never shift into focus, which is somewhat surprising considering the depth of characterization that Kore-eda managed with his entire ensemble in After Life. The film's prevailing sense of malaise envelops those characters, however, and thatís a testament to Kore-edaís ability to spin a convincing mood. The director uses a hand-held camera for the scenes set in the present and a steadier one for those set in the past, which proves to be an odd, if not uninspired, stylistic choice. Since most of the action, such as it is in this talky picture, takes place in the scenes set in the past, the mobility of the camera visually suggests that it is the after-effects of the tragedy, more than the familyís initial descent into the cult mentality, or the attack itself, that has most shaken these people. Kore-eda paces the film in a way that gives his actors full-berth to work through their charactersí pain, but never asks any of them to step up to steal a scene. This results in a movie that is as dramatically flat as it is meditative. There, at least, is a constant awareness of environment, whether that setting is urban or the opposite, that manages to provide some excitement when the people arenít quite up to the task. In summation, it must be said that as respectable an achievement as Distance might be, itís a tough film to recommend. Because Kore-eda doesnít sensationalize the juiciest aspects of his story, the feel is often appropriately inert, but inert nonetheless. When one character mentions that the cusp between dark and dawn is his favorite part of the day, it's not surprising. The characters in this movie clearly have weathered many sleepless nights.