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February 21, 2006

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?, 2005

eli.gifShinji Aoyama returns to the desolate geographical and spiritual landscapes of Eureka to create a thoughtful and idiosyncratic - if patently offbeat and unclassifiable - concoction of doomsday angst, picaresque humor, synthesized cacophony, natural communion, and even redemption in Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?. The film's allusive title, taken from the Aramaic transcription of Jesus' ninth hour utterance upon the cross ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"), provides an insightful framework into the isolated lives of a rural hamlet's increasingly dwindling population after a flu-like, suicide-inducing virus causes a global epidemic called Lemming's Disease (presumably named after the popular misconception that lemming herds commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs as a means of self-regulated population control). The film opens to a curious image in the not-so-distant future of the year 2015 as Mizui (Tadanobu Asano) and Asuhara (Masaya Nakahara) - donned in filtering face masks, goggles, and white coveralls and carrying sound recording equipment - seemingly emerge from the sea and make their way towards the shore where a deserted tent has been staked. Showing little reaction to the sight of dead bodies inside the tent, they instead turn their attention to the recording of the ambient sounds entombed with the occupants of the campsite. It is a wordless ritual that has come to define their daily life since retreating into the countryside on self-imposed exile after abandoning their former careers as world-renowned experimental musicians. However, when a scientist presents a controversial theory that the cure for the malady may lie in a patient's live exposure to the eccentric duo's music, their familiar ritual is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of a wealthy industrialist named Miyagi (Yasutaka Tsutsui) who, with the aid of a private detective (Masahiro Toda), has tracked down the reluctant saviors in order to plead for salvation of his afflicted granddaughter, Hana (Aoi Miyazaki), a dubious "treatment" that the musicians believe will actually trigger the suicidal impulse. Aoyama eschews conventional images of the apocalypse and instead presents a metaphoric image of antiseptic detachment and profound disconnection: apocalypse as the figurative end of humanity, a world without true human contact. It is this cautionary tale of humanity in the face of despair and instilled determination to survive that ultimately reconciles the film's seemingly dissociated, final image of snowfall - as Mizui's messianic experimental performance becomes an anthem for willful survival, so too does the snow represent a glimpse of silent grace in the midst of overwhelming darkness - a rage against the dying of the light.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects


I always like the way you can detail such a subtle atmosphere in few words, saying it all at once.

Is it just me who was indifferent to this deadpan apocalypse, or did you find too the film didn't achieve what he ambitionned to suggest? The expressions seem to be conveyed by wording in the film (and there isn't much) while the images are helpless. There is no tension, no cohesion in the sequences, like if we are reading a graphic novel, frame by frame. I don't know, I didn't buy it at all.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Feb 22, 2006 3:40 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Harry. I found the film a little too distanced in that sense. On the one hand, I can see that it was important for Aoyama to draw the quotidian in such precise detail, and I can also see how the disconnection between the scenes mirrors their own disconnection.

On the other hand, some scenes just went on way too long, like that stretched string/cable that was being played with a bow and he kept playing with effects pedals and a sequencer. Okay, I get it, subtle modulations and perturbations can have a profound consequence...move on already! :) He didn't just keep playing with the three gadgets through every combination, but repeatedly through every combination. Same for the guitar solo near the end which went on for over ten minutes. Anyway, I don't know that I'd change the structure, but I would definitely have edited more. I can see how excising about 20-25 minutes of overran footage (making the film closer to 90 minutes) would really improve the overall pace of the film.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 22, 2006 10:23 AM | Permalink

Thanks for the write-up, Acquarello, I love Eureka, so I've been waiting for similar material from Aoyama. I was mystified when it played at Cannes and there was hardly a peep about it; given your "unclassifiable" description, I think I know why now.

Sounds like he's still trying to rediscover the magic...

Posted by: Doug on Mar 22, 2006 10:56 PM | Permalink

Indeed, Aoyama seemed to be playing with infusing a degree of apocalyptic dread in a similar vein as Kiyoshi Kurosawa but without the pacing. It's not even that Kurosawa's films are fast paced (I think Charisma, Pulse, and Bright Future in particular are fairly slow), but the scenes in those films don't run on quite like the way they do in this one... definitely not in a teasing, The Third Man kind of way.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 23, 2006 10:31 AM | Permalink

Too long, too short, too distanced. It is us the viewer that must reach out to the artist. The movie was profound, and ultimately hopeful that we are not forsaken. As long as memory, longing, searching, holding out beyond hope, there is forgiveness for the living. A profound question about depression as a pathogen. Wondering if we ever know what goes inside in another's head, let alone ourselves. When a person pops out of existence, was it due to external causal forces beyond mortal control or was it the sheer will to just let go? And in that process do we make music or is it just the wind whistling through the hole in our heads? His imagery is admittedly slow, but i think we must slow ourselves to his pace to begin to understand. Thanks.

Posted by: Pedro Chang on Jul 05, 2007 9:32 PM | Permalink

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film. I still think Aoyama's film is flawed, but I agree that it's not without its merits. The idea of melancholia (for lack of a better word) as "viral" and passed in fleeting contact is something that I think pervades Wong Kar-wai's films as well (particularly in Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express), so in that sense, I think he's tuning into a similar frequency. I like the idea of the ephemerality in how people connect (and what they connect with), but I'd say my reservation over the film is more about that ephemerality...there's just too much projection and filling in the blanks for what's not there. It really sets up the paradox that the film is about everything and nothing at the same time.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 06, 2007 4:14 PM | Permalink

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