West North West (Japan, 2015)
Outsider stories deserve an outsider means of expression; to constrict such stories to the realm of traditional narratives or storytelling is to deny them their right to manifest properly. Next to surrealist and non-narrative cinema, slow (and quiet) cinema offers a cavernous dwelling in which such stories have space and time to allow their voice to project itself. And whilst it allows its themes to be handled delicately and respectably, the problem with such a delivery is, in the wrong hands, these stories can be swamped in their own quagmire. With Takuro Nakamura’s debut feature West North West, a beautifully blossoming concept struggles to breathe above this same quagmire.
Kei (Hanae Kan) is a waitress fleeting through a rocky relationship with her jealous girlfriend Ai (Yuka Yamauchi), a model struggling to break onto magazine covers; it is a relationship fraught with as much fighting as it is sex. Faced with the difficulties of coming to terms with her sexuality, Kei’s crisis is turned further upside down when shy Iranian art student Naima (Sahel Rosa) walks into her life. The two dive into a friendship centred on cultural, religious, and sexual discovery and; as the two seek meaning in their lives tensions begin to simmer as Ai grants Kei an ultimatum.
A glacial foray into the cultural exchange and exploratory sexuality between a trio of young women submerged in the dull hues of loneliness and isolation of a modern-day Tokyo. Silence is the name of the game not just between the women but between us and them: we forever remain distant, painfully at arm’s length, and fail to connect with the characters who are as numb as they are conflicted. Their motionless exteriors, masking their true feelings and struggles, may be the result of stunted acting as opposed to an intentional display of emotional disconnect; either way, the muted performances of its lead actors, coupled with a sudden departure in pacing halfway through, drags this faint film ever closer to its finale whilst meandering through predictable clichés and a severe lack of character development. The flippant non-existence of chemistry resulting from the film’s execution makes this a challenging watch even for fans of slow or quiet cinema.
That is precisely the point. Mirroring the purgatorial sensation of existential ennui, West North West almost sadistically places Naima, Kei, and Ai in each other’s paths with Kei being dealt the cruellest hand. Already questioning her sexuality amidst a volatile relationship with Ai, her friendship with Naima only throws her further away from true north; an incident in the hospital with Ai’s mother finds her questioning her future more. Kan’s performance is lacklustre and mostly void of emotion; on the surface this is off-putting but digging deeper one realises she practically embodies what any young woman struggling with her sexuality goes through. The other two leads, similar to Kan, also befit their characters with Yamauchi’s neurotic depiction of Ai goes beyond manipulative and possessive, and Rosa’s introverted delivery as the obvious outsider embellishes the experiences of ‘the other’ regardless of where they find themselves.
No matter how critical one can be of its quiet framing what cannot be ignored is how this enables the overlying themes to be navigated. Its monotony means its vulnerabilities are handled with care and respect, even when they are attacked from the outside whether its from a xenophobic reaction to Naima’s presence or Ai’s mother’s blatant homophobia regarding her and Kei’s relationship. Nothing is sugar-coated nor is it exaggerated or made melodramatic. In some instances, it is the film’s most endearing quality: Naima’s yoghurt preference for instance rouses others curiosity, and her serving of Iranian cuisine for Kei to sample offers Naima to express herself the best way she can. Framed within long takes and punctuated by a deafening silence, whilst unbearably disjointed at times, allows these moments to breathe and, more importantly, exist.
Built on an oft incohesive timeline of moments and subjected to a ‘lost in translation’ scenario where the Mandarin and Farsi language is not subtitled the audience is left on the outside, prohibited from knowing the three women’s’ truths. We are subjected to their isolation and for that West North West makes for a film to be approached with a level of openness not granted to us. But its gargantuan running time, colourless execution, and emotionally-void interior, whilst working favourably for its characters and message, will no doubt hinder its reach. It’s worth the watch, if not to acquire a shred of understanding on the struggles of marginalised women but to witness an artistic yet stripped-back approach to deliver such stories.