Saturday, November 16, 2019

Woman in the Dunes Uses Subtle Techniques To Chill You To The Bone

Some movies can make eloquent use of graphic on-screen violence to generate tension. John Carpenter's The Thing, for instance, is one of my all-time favorite horror movies because of how well it utilizes on-screen depictions of the titular monster destroying the people trapped at a polar outpost.  By contrast, there are also masterful examples of creating tension through keeping such elements off-screen, with Lynne Ramsey's work being an especially good example of this. Neither approach is inherently better, it just depends on what kind of story you're planning to tell. The latter method is utilized for Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes and in the hands of this gifted filmmaker, it really comes off splendidly.

Woman in the Dunes begins with Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) simply scavenging a sandy isolated part of Japan to collect insects. It's a favorite hobby of this schoolteacher and on this particular day, he's become so enamored in it that he's managed to lose track of time. No problem though, a local villager assures him that they can set him up with room and board in a nearby house located in a gigantic pit. The owner of this house is an unnamed widow (played by Kyoko Kishida) who lives alone after her husband and child perished. Niki expects to just spend an evening in her domicile, but the next morning, he learns he's been caught in a trap.

The villagers are keeping him here permanently to help the widow get sand that the small amount of villagers can then sell. Niki's life is no longer his own, he's become trapped and to convey this, Woman in the Dunes, like many films in the Japanese New Wave, resorts to chilling symbolism. In this case, footage of Niki trapping bugs or insects contained in jats flicker on-screen as a way of reflecting that Niki is now just as trapped as the critters he used to put into jars. The hunter has become the hunted, if you will. That's not the only distinctive visual motif used as symbolism throughout Woman in the Dunes, another much more unnerving motif is found in how Hiroshi Teshigahara's uses close-up shots.

Throughout the movie, the camera is placed maybe an inch away from the bodies of Niki and the unnamed widow and we get to sweat and sand covering their naked bodies. It's the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, the surfaces look so unsettling you just wanna grab a big bucket of water and wipe them down. Teshigahara forces the viewer to stare at these bodies communicating the kind of isolated and unforgiving circumstances these two characters must now live in. Their bodies are visual reflections of the internal suffering they cannot escape just as the viewer cannot escape these close-up shots. Such close-up shots are also employed during a crucial sex scene between the two lead characters that lends a sense of woe rather than eroticism to this physical connection.

Teshigahara's direction is quite masterful in communicating the agony Niki and his companion are enduring and his exquisite camerawork goes beyond just close-up shots. The way the camera is positioned and moved during a scene where the unnamed widow suggests forcibly to Niki that he would enjoy having a radio around, for instance, subtly but effectively captures how this widow has some power over the overly confident Niki. Such confidence stems from the fact that Niki is assured that his co-workers will eventually come looking for him and in a film this grim, it's really no spoiler to say that such confidence is heavily misplaced.

All the while, the woe of Niki and the widow are captured in a manner that doesn't utilize blood, guts or other graphic means to make it clear to the audience that these characters are in a horrifying situation. Instead, like the aforementioned works of Ramsey, Woman in the Dunes uses more subtle techniques, including the fascinatingly unorthodox score by Toru Takemitsu, to capture its specific sense of anguish and such a method feels like a perfect fit to a story all about the gradual erasure of a man's humanity and distinct personality. That's an internal psychological kind of horror requiring a more subtle touch and it's a touch Teshigahara carries with aplomb in the director's chair of Woman in the Dunes, a feature as unnerving as it is restrained.

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