When the average American film fan thinks of Japanese movies, they'll probably picture one of three things: either a samurai or a gangster -- Toshiro Mifune and his sword, or Takeshi Kitano and his gun -- or a stringy-haired ghost girl. Die-hard fans will know that Yasujiro Ozu, Nagisa Oshima and Mikio Naruse also made contemporary dramas about modern-day citizens, often trying to figure out their lives in the post-WWII turmoil. But those dramas were hindered by the times, or by the censors; the characters were polite and functional and hid their own true emotions in an attempt to do what they were supposed to be doing. But there's something in the air over in Japan right now; they're making melodramas, big, roiling, red-blooded ones filled with anguish and torment and heartbreak.
Earlier this year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- who is thus far best known for his truly terrifying films like Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001) -- came out with Tokyo Sonata, a devastating (but defiantly odd) look at a crumbling family. The father loses his job, the eldest son contemplates joining the U.S. military and the youngest son sneaks off for secret piano lessons, while the mother finds herself kidnapped by a charismatic burglar. Kurosawa somehow ties together these plot threads with a few scenes at the family home, in which little of the stuff that we can see happening actually gets discussed. It's a brilliant portrait of disconnect and lack of communication.
The much gentler, tamer director Hirokazu Kore-eda -- probably best known for his extraordinary After Life (1998), in which a group of recently deceased people decide on their favorite memory from life, to be filmed and kept forever -- currently has the wonderful new Still Walking (11 screens) in release. The story takes place over 24 hours; a grown son returns to his aged parents' home for the anniversary of his older brother's death. This one is far closer in spirit to Ozu in its restraint and subtlety, but it's still a good deal more emotionally open than its earlier counterpart Tokyo Story (1953). The conflicts and power struggles are bigger and more obvious, complete with gossip, attacks and barely hidden emotions, but Kore-eda still manages to make a quietly lovely film.
Then, next door in South Korea, Park Chan-wook must have been bitten by the same bug -- or vampire -- when he conjured up Thirst (4 screens). Sure, it's a very intense vampire movie, but its original basis was an Emile Zola novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867), the epitome of melodrama. The main focus of the film isn't necessarily the blood or the scares or the gross-outs, but rather -- once again -- the crumbling of a family unit. But frankly, "subtle" isn't exactly the word I'd use for this one. Who knows? Maybe after a few more films like these, we can add a tormented housewife or a suffering husband to the list of indelible images in Asian cinema.