The New York Asian Film Festival ran from August 28th to September 12th. For further details, click here.
The first word that comes to mind for They Say Nothing Stays The Same is undoubtedly ‘gorgeous’. This is a relentlessly beautiful film to look at; for fully an hour of the film, there isn’t a single image or bit of framing that would look out of place in an art gallery. The landscapes and vistas of the film feel like nature at it’s purest, most untouched, and elemental, and if the movie was made up of just that, it would still probably feel like time well spent.
Toichi (Akira Emoto) is a ferry man, a simple fellow who lives a modest life in a ramshackle hut and makes a living shepherding visitors across the river upon which he lives (he only charges out-of-towners). And for the first third of the movie, we do little but spend time with Toichi as he lives his peaceful, generally uneventful life. Simple meals with his simple minded yet affable friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami), friendly conversations with his passengers… it’s not much, but Toichi seems content with his lot.
But with a title like They Say Nothing Stays The Same, it’s pretty obvious that it’s an unsustainable way of life. Actor turned director Joe Adagiri with the aid of Director of Photography Christopher Doyle (so of course it’s this beautiful), is less interested in telling a story than capturing a certain mood, a celebration of what was in the face of the inevitability of change. Though we spend a blessed amount of time just following Toichi in the lazy rhythms of the season, the movie wastes no time in revealing the form that change will take: a bridge, currently under construction, that will essentially make Toichi’s job redundant. An obnoxious, pushy customer that blatantly interrupts the bucolic nature rears his ugly head early enough that the audience understands that modern society will be coming to paradise whether we want it to or not.
It takes some time for the actual inciting incident to take place; Toichi finds a body of a young woman (Ririka Kawashima, credited only as ‘The Girl’) in the river. He fishes her out and nurses her back to health. She doesn’t speak and seems more like a scared, wounded animal than a young girl. Gradually, Toichi earns her trust and they become something of a makeshift family. But there have been stories of a family being murdered in a distant village in a botched kidnapping attempt. Rumor has it that there was one survivor: a young girl…and the murderers are searching high and low for her…
I would be reluctant to reveal much more about the movie, but honestly there’s not that much more to reveal. The movie lingers in those quiet, contemplative spaces, in no hurry to solve any mysteries or let the real world intrude, as it inevitably must. In fact, one of the pleasures of the film is the way in which it uses those mysteries against us as viewers; with every lazy conversation between Toichi and a customer, every bit of odd behavior from an outsider, our brains can’t help but make us question their true agenda. But at the same time, the movie has no interest in building tension or tossing out shocking revelations; (MILD SPOILER ALERT) there’s no other word for it but delightful when Toichi sends Genzo to investigate the rumors in the next village and he reports back that no one knew what he was talking about; in one fell swoop the great mystery and expected final confrontation with the would-be kidnappers is tossed aside. But in its place we are left with even more questions about who or what this woman actually is (END SPOILER)
The supernatural does appear to creep into the film with Toichi’s visions of a spectral woman, staring at him from the shore and cloaked in darkness, though it remains to be seen whether or not this is something real or merely the fantastic imaginings influenced by the urban legends tossed around during idle river rides. And there is a shocking rupture an hour into the film that portends darkness to come. But for all that, and some plot turns towards the end that threaten to break the spell the film has weaved thus far (while still being of a piece with everything that came before), this is a movie that exists and embodies a certain transcendent melancholic wisdom.
“Useless things disappear”, Toichi says in a moment of conversation that clearly doubles as an acceptance of his own pending obsolescence. When constantly questioned about the bridge and how it will make him redundant, Toichi is quick to declare that the convenience will be good for the villagers, never betraying whatever his true feelings on the situation. And true to his name, Akira Emoto is heartbreaking in his quiet sense of dignity and vast well of kindness, and even moreso in those moments where his mask slips and the sorrow and sense of shame at not being a better man reveal themselves. There are many reasons to watch the film, but his performance is among the most memorable.
From its title on down, They Say Nothing Stays The Same is hardly what you might call subtle. That it manages to find such a delicate balance between parable, fable, ghost story and moving postcard is a true testament to Odagiri’s filmmaking talent. The world it creates is one well worth visiting, for the time that it lasts.