A troubled young man finds focus and structure in the Japanese world of a master potter and the tension-filled, days-long eponymous firing process that has a human parallel in his unwitting emotional maturity. "Kamataki" is a film of rich, quiet pleasures and solid perfs that will fire emotions on the arthouse circuit and in ancillary.

In the finely crafted, sublimely played drama “Kamataki,” a troubled young man finds focus and structure in the Japanese world of a master potter and the tension-filled, days-long eponymous firing process that has a human parallel in his unwitting emotional maturity. Vet Montreal helmer Claude Gagnon deservedly won the best director award at the recently wrapped Montreal World Film Festival, but the more telling kudos for pic’s future are its clutch of aud and jury awards: “Kamataki” is a film of rich, quiet pleasures and solid perfs that will fire emotions on the arthouse circuit and in ancillary.

Surviving an offscreen jump into the St. Lawrence River following the death of his father, gangly 23-year-old occidental Montrealer Ken Antoine (Matt Smiley) is sent to rural Japan to spend some time with his late dad’s brother, Uncle Takuma (Tatsuya Fuji).

An eccentric, private artist who nevertheless embraces the pleasures of the flesh and counsels his resentful and moody nephew in a growling singsong to “just feel,” Takuma lives on a rural spread that includes the huge wood-fired kiln in which he regularly fires dozens of pots and cups at a time in the Kamataki process, which requires the oven to be stoked and tended for days on end.

At first uninterested in his surroundings and unwilling to contribute, Ken is soon caught up in the seductive rhythms of the stoneware process and the unwitting healing of his emotional scars. This culminates in a tension-filled marathon of kiln-tending, during which Takuma’s sudden and mysterious illness leaves the young man in charge of the demanding and perilous procedure for 24 hours plus. Working on his uncle’s advice to “keep a strong and good fire inside always,” Ken dances with glee when he’s able to control the white-hot inferno.

Laced into Gagnon’s deceptively straightforward script are tantalizing plot threads that reveal subtle dimensions within his characters. Ken is fascinated by two broken pieces of pottery in an alcove that mysteriously change positions, while his uncle’s precise relationships with the sunny Mio (Naho Watanabe) and older Kariya Sensei (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) seem to affect the crockery’s positioning. The young man even finds love along the way, first with Takuma’s faithful assistant Rita (Lisle Wilkerson), and then, in one of the pic’s most emotionally charged scenes, with Sensei herself.

Enhancing the central metaphor are sure turns by the leads. Smiley toned down a sculpted physique to play the initially surly Ken, and his performance is a quiet jewel of unarticulated grief augmented by dawning confidence. Fuji, star of Nagisa Oshima’s twin landmarks “In the Realm of the Senses” and “Empire of Passion,” as well as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s recent “Bright Future,” gives a marvelously nuanced and mischievous reading of Takuma. Yoshiyuki, his co-star in “Passion,” has a lovely depth to her stillness. Wilkerson, who grew up in Tokyo, is a commanding presence in her first lead role after years of voiceover work.

Tech credits are crisp, led by Hideo Urata’s crystalline lensing with new generation vidcam AK Origin. Frustratingly for English monolinguists, projection caught had some Japanese dialogue subtitled in French only. Gagnon is the only Canadian director in the 29-year history of the Montreal fest to win the Grand Prix of the Americas prize, for his 1987 drama “Kenny” (aka “The Kid Brother”).

Kamataki

Canada-Japan

Production

A Filmoption Intl. release (in Canada) of a Zuno Films (Canada)/NHK (Japan) production. (International sales: Filmoption Intl., Westmount, Quebec.) Produced by Yuri Yoshimura, Samuel Gagnon. Executive producer, Nobuo Isobe. Directed, written by Claude Gagnon.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Hideho Urata; editors, Gagnon, Takako Miyahira; music, Jorane; art director, Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama; costume designer, Fuyu Fujii; sound (Dolby Digital), Kazuyoshi Kawashima; assistant director, Takako Miyahira. Reviewed at World Film Festival (competing), Montreal, Aug. 31, 2005. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Matt Smiley, Tatsuya Fuji, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Lisle Wilkerson, Naho Watanabe, Christopher Heyerdahl. (English, Japanese dialogue)
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