A mother searches for traces of her adult son in Chinese helmer Zhao Ye's touching Japanese foray.

A mother searches for traces of her adult son in Chinese helmer Zhao Ye’s touching Japanese foray, “Last Chestnuts.” Commissioned and produced by Naomi Kawase as part of her Narative Project strand of the Nara Film Fest, this medium-length study in loss unsurprisingly dovetails with Kawase’s own moody meditations on nature and death. Beautifully modulated thesping from star Kaori Momoi and screen newcomer Setsuko Dodo ensure an emotional investment that lingers even after Zhao cheapens the sentiment by adding one woe too many. Clocking in at just under one hour, the pic’s short running time shouldn’t hamper fest play.

The Narative Project is open to international helmers with the proviso that shooting take place in Japan’s Nara region; Kawase’s involvement will unquestionably help “Chestnuts” gain recognition that, though warranted, could easily have escaped Zhao in his third feature (his first, “Ma wu jia,” did a respectable turn on the fest circuit). As in his debut, Zhao has a keen sense of the interaction between character and environment, though here he’s tightened his narrative skills without sacrificing his sense of place or tone.

A troubled Mrs. Takahashi (Momoi) walks along a road asking various passersby if they recognize the locales in photos on her son Mitsuo’s digital camera. She meets cafe owner Mr. Uda (Shigeki Uda), who tells her Mitsuo had stopped by, bearing a basketful of chestnuts and asking about his work as an actor on Kawase’s “The Mourning Forest” (this homage to Zhao’s producer may strike some as a bit forced).

Mr. Uda recognizes one of the people in the photos as a local girl named Mie, whose mother, Setsuko (Dodo), lives nearby. Mrs. Takahashi is hesitant to make contact, but the welcoming Setsuko is delighted to learn of her daughter’s apparent relationship with Mitsuo. When she phones Mie, Mrs. Takahashi slips out the door, at which point Setsuko learns Mitsuo is dead.

Until this point, auds are likely to be completely with this character, whose emotions practically quiver on the surface, full of pain and a refusal to confront reality. The film throws one more tragic revelation into the mix, however, overloading the very delicate balance, but Momoi’s deeply felt perf, reportedly partly ad-libbed, brims with an anguish barely held together by delusion, and it’s difficult to not be moved. Dodo’s warm-hearted turn is also excellent, capturing the concern of a good woman sympathetically stirred by the misfortune of others.

Lensing by Hideyo Nakano (“The Mourning Forest”) is observational and at times too omnipresent; viewers can never forget that the cameraman is walking beside or just behind the actors, and clunky zooms compromise emotional buildups.

Last Chestnuts

Japan

Production

A Nara Intl. Film Festival production. Produced by Naomi Kawase. Directed, written by Zhao Ye.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Hideyo Nakano; sound, Eiji Mori. Reviewed at Turin Film Festival (competing), Nov. 29, 2010. Running time: 57 MIN.

With

Kaori Momoi, Setsuko Dodo, Shigeki Uda.
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