Its title translating as “Shade of Red,” Japanese writer-director Naomi Kawase’s “Hanezu” works moderately well as an emotionally grisly account of a relationship’s dissolution, but less so as an allegory of a nation grappling with its history and suffering terrible loss. The filmmaker, whose “The Mourning Forest” took the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2007, won’t win many new fans here with a snail-paced, documentary-like pic that favors periodic shots of nature and reveals its narrative concerns only after an hour or so. Festivals far and wide, though, will help maintain Kawase’s track record of international exposure and acclaim.
Amid gorgeous images of the Asuka region of Japan, the nation’s birthplace, poetic voiceovers by a man and woman begin the film by recounting the ancient myth of two mountains competing for one another’s love. Bringing this tale into present-day, human form is a young couple living together in picturesque Nara prefecture and expecting a child. Pregnant Kayoko (Hako Oshima) dyes scarves red using safflower, while her partner, Tetsuya (Tetsuya Akikawa), tinkers in the garden when not working as a book editor or daydreaming about opening a cafe.
But such details emerge only gradually, as Kawase spends the pic’s first half-hour focusing nearly as much attention on shots of insects, mountains and the sun’s reflection on water. Eventually, Tetsuya leaves on a business trip, returning to discover Kayoko has been keeping a secret that will greatly jeopardize their relationship. The film’s early voiceovers are repeated an hour in, with the lovestruck mountains of yore being likened to men and women who are driven to engage in toweringly messy interactions.
At film’s end, a title card makes reference to the tsunami that recently devastated northern Japan, but this addendum feels gratuitously out of place, as do lingering shots of an excavation that bracket the pic and flashbacks to a ’40s-era soldier telling his wife and young child that he’ll be going off to war. Japan’s leading female director, Kawase hasn’t managed in the thematically fuzzy “Hanezu” to intertwine nature, pregnancy, past and present as fluidly as in her many documentary labors of love (e.g., “Birth/Mother,” “Genpin”).
The string-based musical score by Hasiken helps lend a suitably mournful tone to the proceedings, while Kawase’s 16mm lensing appears startlingly vivid and sharp-edged, not least in a late scene that adds another shade to the pic’s title.