Rail Truck (Japan, 2010)

A fog enshrouded forest, two boys lost in the woods, and a mother on the verge of an emotional breakdown are all familiar ingredients in good melodrama. These individual pieces are a visual short-hand to illustrate well-worn thematic tropes like isolation, alienation, and loneliness. And though these familiar ingredients are utilized in Hirofumi Kawaguchi’s debut, Rail Truck, the “big” emotional moments that are a prerequisite for all family melodramas are not just there to wring out every last teardrop that an audience might shed. Kawaguchi, who has mainly worked as an assistant director for established Japanese filmmakers like Isao Yukisada before taking up the mantle of director himself,  allows many of the more emotional scenes in the film to breathe and continue long after many faster-paced directors would have cut to the next scene, separating Rail Truck from the usual melodramatic family fare found on American as well as Japanese television.

With a North American premiere at the 2010 Montreal World Film Festival, Rail Truck, adapted from a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (of Rashomon fame), is a story about a widowed mother who takes her two little boys to Taiwan to not only bring her husband’s ashes back to his place of birth but to also try and repair the damage that his absence has caused. Underneath this story of loss is ultimately one of identity, both in an individual and nationalistic sense, with the two boys in Rail Truck  being the offspring of mixed race parentage, a Japanese mother and Taiwanese father.

Also, due to the fact that the two boys, Atsushi (Kento Harada) and Toki (Kyoichi Omae), are not quite old enough to fully comprehend the events occurring around them, they act mainly as ciphers, bombarded with all sorts of stimuli and trying to sort out the messy confusion that is life and create a narrative that they can understand. Several scenes in the film have the two either crouched under a table, hiding behind a piece of furniture or pretending to sleep as their mother Yumiko (Machiko Ono) suffers in quiet despair. These scenes usually shot from the boys perspective utilize low-angle shots which results in everything, people included, appearing larger in scale than they really are, illustrating just how small and vulnerable they are when confronted with the harshness of the adult world.

This adherence to a naturalistic visual style and attention to the daily minutiae of family life echoes the work of the preeminent master of the low-key family drama, Yasujiro Ozu. In particular, Kawaguchi”s two child protagonists seem to look back at the quarreling brothers in Ozu’s silent classic I Was Born, But…(1932) and transplants them to a far more somber film. Beyond the coming-of-age narrative and the fact that both films have young boys as central protagonists, these films also share a concern with father figures. In both films, how the adult world is perceived by the boys via their fathers has a direct effect on how each pair of brothers interact with the people around them. In Ozu’s film, the two petulant boys” naivety at how the adult world operates results in them going on a hunger strike due to their father’s goofball antics at work. While in Kawaguchi’s film,  Atsushi, the older of the two boys, is coming to terms not only with the death of his father, but of the life he had lead before he had even met his own mother. Though both coming-of-age narratives position the father as an important role model, the main difference between these nbso online casino reviews two films is that in I Was Born, But…, Ozu undercuts the comic moments in the film with a bittersweet ending in which the quarreling brothers come to realize the sad truth that they are no match for the complicated hierarchy of the adult world and that even their father must at times compromise his dignity to put food on the table. In Kawaguchi’s Rail Truck, although not offering a happy ending per se, the film offers a less defeatist viewpoint of the transition to adulthood, by giving Atsushi and Toki the freedom to make their own choices; one”s past doesn’t always have to dictate one”s future.

It is this nostalgia for the past, both personal as well as historical, which looms heavily throughout the film. The eponymously named rail truck in Kawaguchi’s film itself is a visual reminder of the Japanese Occupation in Taiwan. Yet, whereas many Pan-asian productions would equate this time period in a negative light, like in Wen Jiang’s Devil’s on the Doorstep (Guizi lai le, 2000), Rail Truck reminds that the Japanese Occupation was a time of progress and economic security for the small mountain village where the film is set. The rail truck”s primary use is to transport the hinoki trees cut in the once verdant mountain forests to cargo ships that would take them all the way back to Japan to be used to repair ancient shrines and temples. The rail truck in Kawaguchi’s film becomes a symbol of the figurative tether which connects Japan and Taiwan in a parent-child duality, continuing the motif of the father-son relationship.

Throughout the film, the boys’ grandfather, played by Liu Hong, shows his grandchildren the physical remnants of the Japanese occupation: the buildings they built, photographs he’s saved and, most obviously, a town unable to move forward in time. The grandfather, a product of Japanese imperialism, is not bitter at having been forced to adopt a Japanese name to get ahead, nor is he even angry at his forced conscription into the Imperial Army. What insults him and causes him to slightly waver in his loyalty to his adopted country is that, even after all his sacrifices and the measures he’s had to take to suppress his Chinese heritage, Japan cannot acknowledge, at least on paper, that he is as Japanese as his daughter in-law, Yumiko. Atsushi, seeing the anguish in his grandfather, empathizes with the man since his mixed parentage marks him as different not only in Tokyo, but in his father’s village as well. The main difference between the two is that Liu Hong’s character is trapped in the past, a majority of the film has his character looking for the exact spot where he once stood with the rail truck in a photo, trying in a vain attempt to relive a time when being part of the Japanese Empire was the closest thing that a non-Japanese subject could hope to being Japanese. By film’s end, Atsushi takes to heart what his grandfather said earlier and decides for himself that national loyalties like the one his grandfather has for Japan forces some to deny their entire selves. Thus, Atsushi begins to accept the fact that, although he is Taiwanese, he must not necessarily reject his Japanese heritage and vice-versa, just as his grandfather and, in a way, his father had done before him.

This empathetic concern for characters trapped between two cultures echoes another minimalist filmmaker, the Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who was himself inspired by and has spoken reverently of the work of Yasujiro Ozu. How Hou deviates from Ozu is Hou”s portrayal of a more global world, a notion that informs Kawaguchi’s Rail Truck. The connection between Kawaguchi and Hou is strengthened even further by Kawaguchi”s enlisting of Mark Lee Ping-bin, a frequent Hou Hsiao-Hsien collaborator, as his cinematographer.

Though Rail Truck might be too slow and boring for many filmgoers, it rewards those who can appreciate a narrative that moves at a more relaxed pace. Heady topics like identity, family, and death doesn”t exactly an “entertaining” film make, and most likely many critics would file the film as a “cultural vegetable.” Rail Truck is actually a wonderful addition to the family melodrama and though not in quite the same league as Yasujiro Ozu or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films, it continues the tradition that those two men began.  Hopefully, Kawaguchi’s next film elevates him to the same level as those directors.