Friday, August 14, 2009

Nobody Knows

There's a strange fascination with, and to be honest, near fetishization of, poverty in fiction. The poor, with their love of alcohol and each other, are so much more happy than anyone else, and even with hardships with their plucky resolve they can overcome most difficulties. Some might suggest that this is to help make poor people more satisfied with their lot in life - I have thought that about Alan Jackson more than once - but it might just be something more innocent, like fond memories and nostalgia. I was best friends with a guy who came from a fairly poor family, and I can recognize some of the happy memories combined with a hint of something being amiss that all these stories about poor people share. Plus, let's be honest, the best movie ever made deals with children growing up in poverty, so I can't really complain too loudly.

In fact, while I've noticed it, it's never actually been bothered before. The aforementioned memories of growing up might contribute to that. The situations often feel familiar, and I can see many writers and directors just drawing from their own childhood. In fact, one day I might even do it myself, if I decide to make some fiction involving children. For the first time ever, I've been slightly off put by the glorification of being poor. If you haven't guessed already, given the title of this particular piece, the movie that has caused this discomfort is a Japanese film from 2004 called Nobody Knows.

This film is a fictionalized account of the long-windedly titled "Affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo." As one might expect, Japan doesn't have news media prone to turning everything into a catchy soundbite and graphic, and the film itself is about four abandoned children. In Sugamo. Together, in spite of a lack of money and proper schooling, they manage to not completely die, and have happy adventures mixed in with the poverty and stress. According to this movie, they also spent much of their time staring off into the distance and having nicely composed shots of their various poor, working class surroundings pop up.

It should be noted that in making the transition to tragic real life story to movie about poor children, some fairly important details were fudged. A fifth child who died and was stuffed in a closet was omitted, and a character death was changed from a murder to an accident. This fits neatly in to what bothers me about the entire movie. There's a slightly odd feeling that the director/writer/etc. Hirokazu Kore-eda really loves the idea of poverty, and didn't want to let messy facts get in his way. He seems to genuinely love the life these kids are leading, and makes it seem somewhat better than it could ever possibly be.

It bugs me not because I can't believe joy can be found in poverty, but because the fascination with the poor and the abandoned is almost creepy. In real life, the kids were malnourished, but here they just have crappier clothes. In real life, the oldest kids' friends killed his siblings, but here they're not an entirely bad influence. In real life, child abandonment sucks, here is not actually that bad.

Don't get me wrong, in the script and the performances do suggest the misery that comes with the situation, but it's the way it's filmed that makes it seem a bit like Kore-eda likes the idea too much. Shots linger on quiet family moments and little bits of domestic chores. A scene where a body is buried has a scene where two characters bond uncomfortably stitched on. The moments of levity get more attention than any negative scenes. As a result, for two hours being abandoned by a superficial, immature mother doesn't seem that bad. I mean, early in the film kids are shipped in suitcases, yet it's filmed and edited like a happy family reunion. You see the fairly terrible lives these kids lead, but the camera is too in love with it.

I hate to suggest it needs to be more cruel, but it does need to be less in love with the idea of poverty. Truth be told, it also needs to be a bit shorter - to be honest, not very much of note happens in the 2 and a half hour running time - and it doesn't have much narrative. Still, for me, the way it was filmed is the biggest detraction. Everyone on screen knows that these kids have it rough, it's just that the camera can't admit it.

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