Critical favorite directed 'Mourning Forest'

Naomi Kawase has been tagged Japan’s leading woman director since her first feature, “Suzaku,” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1997.

But that might be considered a dubious distinction, given the paucity of contenders until recently.

She’s always been more of critics’ darling than an audience fave, but even among cineaste circles she tends to generate heated debate, not unlike Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas, who, like Kawase, eschews commercial considerations and anything smacking of formula.

At Cannes in May, Kawase’s “Mogari no mori” (The Mourning Forest) won the Grand Prix, the runner-up award, beating such filmmakers as the Coen brothers. It was a controversial win given the film’s “ultra-arty” nature, according to Variety‘s Todd McCarthy.

The film follows a woman who becomes the caregiver for a man with Alzheimer’s and joins him on a strange, poignant quest for remembrance. Not exactly crowdpleasing fare, but apropos for an artist whose works are inspired by a deeply personal, docu-influenced style that recalls the masters of Japanese cinema’s humanistic tradition.

While Kawase has long shied from the media spotlight in Japan, she is hardly a self-effacing type. Announcing the production of her new pic with the working title “Sekaiju ga watashi o suki dattara ii no ni” (If Only the Whole World Loved Me) at a June 7 press conference in her native Nara, Kawase said her next goal was to take a Cannes Palme d’Or.

“I’ve got the potential to do it,” she said then. “After Kurosawa and Oshima, I think Kawase will be the next internationally known name among this generation of (Japanese filmmakers).”

After all she’s accomplished so far, who would dare doubt her?

Vocation: “Giving form to something that didn’t exist before and then communicating that to people and reaching them with it.”

Recent breakthrough: “When I made ‘The Mourning Forest,’ I was able to work with ‘borderless’ people on my staff, which helped me extend myself.”

Role models: “The mother and father who raised me.”

Career mantra: “There is nothing human beings can’t do.”

What’s next: “I will complete my new film this fall.”

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