There is a certain kind of slice-of-life film, the kind where nothing much happens, where there is neither action or drama but where ordinary people do ordinary things and where viewers (if they don’t fall asleep) are drawn in by the slowly unfolding poetry of everyday life.
The French in particular excel at this kind of film, and next to them I think the Japanese are best at it. I have seen two films by director Hirokazu Koreeda now, and on the basis of those I’m inclined to call him the most French of all Japanese directors. He is much loved by critics and pretty much every single one of them compares his films to those of Jasojiru Ozu but to me he seems much closer to French director Eric Rohmer – the films of both directors feature a lot of apparently pointless talking, they both like to watch their characters walking, and with both it can be hard to tell whether dialogue is scripted or improvised or whether the beauty of a scene is due to mise-en-scéne or accident. And the films of both directors are not for everyone: You either get them or you don’t.
What distinguishes Koreeda from Rohmer, however, is that his characters are for the most part likeable, which lends his films a warmth that Rohmer’s often lack; it may even be his main achievement that his films are deeply emotional without ever becoming in the slightest sentimental. I Wish is about a family with two sons that has been split apart after the wife left her husband. They are living in two different towns now, the woman with the eldest son having returned to her parents and the man with the younger son trying to make a living as rock musician. The main emphasis is on the two brothers; and while I usually have a strong aversion towards child actors, I have to say that Kôki and Ohshirô Maeda (actual brothers) are a delight to watch, in fact all of the children in this film are: they all come across as completely natural and it is just impossible not to become infected by their bubbling energy or not to be touched by their sad or tender moments.
I Wish lasts two hours and nothing much in the way of plot is happening in this time. True, there is a basic story – a new high speed train line running between the towns the two halves of the family are living in is being opened, and when Koichi (the elder brother) hears that when the bullet trains from both direction will meet each other for the first time, a miracle (Japanese kiseki, the original title of the film) will happen and everyone watching will be granted a wish, he sees that as his chance to re-unite their family.
For the most part, however, I Wish just follows its protagonists as well as their friends and relatives as they live their lives without caring much about plot at all, and how much you will like this film is largely going to depend on how much you are abel to enjoy watching the two boys go to school, talk with their classmates or ogle the beautiful librarian, or else watch their grandfather’s attempt to recreate a particular type of sponge cake he enjoyed in his childhood. What emerges from this losely connected scenes which pass into each other by way of word or image associations, is not so much a story, but a kind of tapestry where all the different strands interweave to create a richly textured picture.
The film is all about little things (starting with its dimuntive protagonists) and nuances, and in consequence does not explain much – you have to pay attention to the small asides or the ellipses to slowly figure out each character’s background and emotional state. And I Wish does provide them in depth even for minor characters, you just have to be on your toes to catch them. And thus, if you take your time and open yourself to the film, its wonderful actors and gorgeous images, you eventually will start to notice that contrary to first impressions everything in I Wish has a purpose, that no shot is wasteful and plays its part in building up to a quiet and unassuming, but immensely moving whole.
One of the things that is outstanding about this (and indeed the other film by Koreeda which I have seen so far) is just how unsentimental it is. Two kids running from their divorced parents to effect a miracle that would bring the family together again – it is easy to imagine how your average Hollywood film would have handled this, with the worried parents meeting to find their children, a panicked search, and finally a happy reunion as they discover that they still have feelings for each other. Nothing, but really nothing of this is in I Wish, instead events and the way they are told here undramatic to the point of being laconic, and if there is a miracle in the end it is a very subtle one. And yet, the emotional impact this film has is huge.
Again, this is not a film everyone will like – many will find, and indeed have found it boring. For my part, I was riveted to the screen for all two hours of its running time, and I think if you remain patient and receptive there is a miracle of a film to discover which, among its other virtues, is also very beautiful. It’s not a beauty of big gestures and grand spectacles, but, like everything else in I Wish, an unassuming kind of beauty, a beauty that arises from everyday life, from sudden tableaus that strike you unexpectedly as you look down a street, or into a garden, or over a bay.
For my part, I think that this is a wonderful film, both heartwarming and intelligent, a film that that will leave you feeling pleasantly fuzzy without insulting your brains. In short, I loved I Wish, as I loved Our Little Sister, the other film by Hirokazu Koreeda and it seems like I have another name to add to my list of favourite film directors.