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land of hopeHaving only experienced Sion Sono through his previous film Himizu (which was an alienating experience), his new and apparently most “mature” effort, The Land Of Hope, was very much a pleasant surprise.

Set during a nuclear meltdown at the fictional prefecture of Nagashima, the film has a contemporary setting that interacts with the recent trauma of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, by acknowledging it into it’s parallel existence through the second-hand stories of it’s characters. Nagashima has a small township and a farming community to supply it. The story centres on the Ono and Suzuki families, both farmers and neighbours, and both made up of 2 parents, one adult son and their sons’ partners.

There a many moments of astounding beauty – too many to list – and one of the finest is the point at which the threat becomes real, and the barricade that renders Nagashima uninhabitable is erected right in Yasuhiko Ono’s front garden. Yasuhiko hears the evacuation sirens and runs out of the house to see men in radiation suits securing the area. The scene begins in black and white, like the extremes of the old man’s fear becoming reality – but also a frightening memory – and then colour is gradually, seamlessly returned to the frame, as he accepts this, and he becomes the first character to accept his fate. Yasuhiko is also haunted by the barricade stakes being driven into his land, a loud mallet hammering them deep like nails in his coffin, and later his son, Yoichi, shares this vision, of the stakes between them, of death barricading him from his father.

A similar case is Mitsuro Suzuki and his girlfriend Yoko’s shared experience with two small children wandering the evacuated township. In their efforts to search for Yoko’s parents, they briefly encounter a young boy and girl looking for a Beatles record in the wreckage. The little girl muses that Japan must move one step at a time, with a ritualistic demonstration of these steps, and a chant “One step. One step.” Mitsuru and Yoko are young adults and a little reckless, they dismiss this with detached remarks along the lines of “how do they know who the Beatles are?” and “they are very mature for their age,” but they are, were and will become this shared vision as they, and the film, progress.

With a magnificent, tragic score and suggestions of Ozu, The Land Of Hope is a mirror into which Japan may gaze to see it’s past of war and disaster, of modernity, of cinema, of ceremony, and mostly of the nation’s spirit, captured beautifully in a traditional dance at an imagined Spirit Festival that Yasuhiko’s wife, Chieko, recreates in the empty, snow-covered streets. Sono has composed a heartfelt love letter to his homeland that is also, in part, a eulogy. The Land Of Hope is definitely something to seek out and a favourite of the festival so far.

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