Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (1999):
Topicality is tricky. Sylvester Stallone’s one-man war in Afghanistan in Rambo III might have suited the Evil Empire mentality of the early 1980s, but in 1988, with Russian troops rapidly withdrawing from the country, it was ludicrous. Rambo was battling a Cold War ghost.
Beijing Watermelon, which tells the story of a Chiba vegetable seller’s encounter with Chinese students, was also overtaken by events. Filming scheduled for Beijing had to be canceled because of the tragedy at Tienanmen Square. But instead of plugging away as though nothing had happened, director Nobuhiko Obayashi seized the opportunity to comment on that tragedy and make one of the most original, moving films in recent memory.
Based on a true story, Beijing Watermelon has a documentary feel, with none of the chaos of real life excluded. In the main group scenes all the characters are talking at once, off the top of their heads. This cinema verite style of scripting is not new—it is a trademark of Robert Altman—but results have been mixed. In Altman’s films, improvisation at times becomes an end in itself—an in-groupy exercise in self-indulgence. Obayashi, however, uses the seemingly aimless chit-chat to reveal character and advance the story, while creating an intimate, unbuttoned mood that brings out the best in his cast of amateurs and professionals. Freed from running through scripted paces, they project a naturalness that gives the film immediacy and vitality. It is not acted so much as lived.
The story is that of the Good Samaritan. Haruzo Horikoshi (Bengal) and his wife Michiko (Masako Motai) run a small vegetable shop in Chiba Prefecture. One day a tall, gangling Chinese student (Wu Yue) comes to the shop and complains, in halting Japanese, that the prices are too high. He has only ten yen to spend—too little to buy anything but a three-minute phone call. Haruzo refuses to give him a discount but the student stubbornly stands his ground. Michiko—an understanding sort—suggests that they play jankenpon (scissors-paper-stone) to settle the argument. Haruzo loses, but his life begins to change.
A few days later—after refusing to play another round of jankenpon—Haruzo finds the student in a state of collapse from malnutrition. He rushes him to a hospital and learns, from one of the boy’s friends, about the harsh economic realities Chinese students face in Tokyo. Haruzo—a typical horse-playing, sake-drinking middle-aged man—begins selling discount vegetables to all the Chinese students at a nearby dorm and taking them on tours of Tokyo and Kamakura while his wife minds the store.
The students call him their “Japanese father,” the neighbors say he has caught the “Chinese disease.” His wife and children freel that he is neglecting them and ruining the business. But despite his own doubts, Haruzo keeps helping his new Chinese friends. He doesn’t stop even when the tax men come to confiscate the furniture and his wife, in tears, begs him to think of his family. Finally, he collapses from exhaustion, but he now has a dorm full of Chinese friends ready to save their Japanese father from his own excesses.
This may sound like typical heart-warming TV drama fare, but Obayashi’s treatment is anything but conventional. While giving his actors free rein, he shapes the ensuing conversational melee to create a tone both dryly humorous (the audience was laughing more than they usually do at straight-ahead comedies) and determinedly unsentimental. Also, though he hews fairly close to the facts in bringing his true-life story to the screen, when the occasion demands it Obayashi abandons the illusion of realism together.
Towards the end, when Bengal and Masako Motai step out of character to explain why they weren’t able to go to Beijing to shoot the final scenes, the film takes on a new dimension. It comments on the events at Tiananmen Square in an understated, but effective manner without losing track of the original story. The scene is a virtuoso turn that few other directors could even imagine, let alone bring off.
Beijing Watermelon is another indication that Japanese directors are still making some of the most innovative films on either side of the Pacific.
1.99GB | 2 h 15 min | 800×480 | mkv