“A radiation vacation” — as the protagonist who survived 3/11 calls her brief encounter with a German volunteer — sums up the gallows humor of Doris Doerrie’s post-disaster traumedy, shot right in the middle of Fukushima’s Exclusion Zone. Lensed in poetic black-and-white with the German helmer-scribe’s trademark whimsical fantasy and peppered with absurdist cross-cultural gags, “Fukushima, mon amour” offers a refreshingly quirky perspective on a heavy subject, suggesting that sometimes audiences, and perhaps even victims, need a vacation from misery and pity. Judging by its rapturous response at the Berlinale, the pic should enjoy niche domestic success and small-screen deals across Europe and North America. Japanese viewers, however, may find the topic too touchy and painful to be given a funny treatment.
In addition to the more exotic and crowd-pleasing “Cherry Blossoms” (2008), also about a German traveler trying to overcome personal loss by soaking up foreign culture, Doerrie has set other films in Japan, such as “A Fisherman and His Wife” and “Enlightenment Guaranteed.” Having traveled all over the country some 25 times, she evinces a deeper understanding of Japanese aesthetics and social dynamics than, say, Abbas Kiarostami did in “Like Someone in Love.”
Although she employs blunt metaphors involving tea ceremonies and geishas, and a recurrent cat’s meow doesn’t quite work as a motif implying that one cannot bring back the dead, Doerrie doesn’t presume to understand or verbalize what the living victims of such cataclysmic misfortune feel. Instead, her penchant for drawing awkward misfits allows her to portray both German and Japanese protagonists alike as strangers in a strange land, and to dramatize the survivors’ difficulty in comprehending their situation.
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Marie (Rosalie Thomass) goes to Fukushima with the organization Clowns4Help to cheer up predominantly elderly refugees living in a shelter. Doerrie wryly observes the survivors’ bewildered but stoically polite reactions as these outsiders strain to make them feel better, but it’s Marie who may need help, as she suffers a panic attack and finds solace in a boozy, chilled-out monk. Like the heroine of Doerrie’s “Nobody Loves Me,” Marie is a black hole of insecurity and self-absorption, obviously not up to the job. Capturing First World guilt and its underlying schadenfreude in a nutshell, she blurts out: “I thought I’d feel better if I’m in a place where people have a hard time.”
After sneaking crabby old lady Satomi (Kaori Momoi) back to her ruined house in a heavily radiated zone, now dubiously declared safe by the government, Marie decides to move in with her. Here, Doerrie trots out some culture-clash cliches — i.e., the brash foreigner behaving like a bull in a china shop — but the droll dialogue will still raise a smile. And Satomi, who claims to be the last geisha in the region, is anything but a Japanese paragon of civility and tact: “You are like an elephant,” she tells Marie, often referring to her with other condescendingly bemused terms reserved for pets or livestock.
Marie sees ghosts hover in their yard, including Satomi’s beloved apprentice, Yuki (Nanoko), who died in the tsunami while clinging onto a tree outside her house. Satomi blames Marie for attracting these restless spirits because she’s so miserable. However, in a revelatory scene that raises goosebumps, it turns out that Satomi’s grief over Yuki’s death is more complicated than she lets on.
Throughout the film there have been vague, dreamlike hints of some personal tragedy that’s feeding Marie’s anxiety and listlessness. Her eventual confession may come as an anticlimax to some, but it brings to light a new similarity between the two women, and expresses the film’s real theme: What if one loses everything that matters, not due to a natural disaster or predestined fate, but through one’s own folly? How does one move on and forgive one’s own mistakes? The epilogue, which features stills of old ladies in front of picket lines calling for an end to nuclear power in Japan, serves as the film’s only overtly political statement, but its impact is poignant and stirring enough to elicit applause from the audience.
Momoi, who cultivates an outre, wise-cracking image both in public and on screen, is probably better suited for this role than other Japanese actresses, who might be more nuanced and self-effacing. Her theatrical intonations and eccentric, almost contortive body language help lift the film out of social realism into its intended fantastical yet ironic realm.
Thomass displays expert comic timing with her clumsy, large-limbed gait, creating slapstick out of small gestures like holding a teacup or wiping the floor. She possesses a childlike naivete that makes her winsome even when she proclaims herself a “stupid, selfish, spoiled German bitch.” She doesn’t exactly tap into deep, complex sentiments, but perhaps that’s in character, since emotional immaturity is what prompted her on her journey. Since the film is designed expressly as a two-hander, the other actors all occupy functional roles, with the exception of Clowns Without Borders USA founder Moshe Cohen, who exudes a patient, gently feel-good presence.
Lenser Hanno Lentz’s gorgeous black-and-white images of the decimated landscape, blended seamlessly with discreetly chosen news footage, reinforce the surreal, apocalyptic scenario. Particularly indelible are sweeping shots of innumerable bags of toxic nuclear waste, neatly piled into symmetrical mounds as though part of an eerie art installation. Ulrike Haage’s futuristic score, with its discordant piano notes and droning electronic tune, goes hand-in-hand with Christof Ebhardt’s piercing sound mix to create a broad range of moods, from chaotic to uncanny to hilarious and absurd.
The German title means “Greetings From Fukushima.”