08:48 - 17th October 2013, by Calum Waddell

The Land of Hope

Sion Sono has long been one of NEO's favourite filmmakers. Ever since we came across his absolutely crazy J-horror caper Suicide Club (from 2001) we knew we had found an amazing and intriguing cinematic imagination. Subsequent masterworks, such as his gut-wrenching serial-killer thriller Cold Fish (2010) and the perverse sex and sleaze shocker Guilty of Romance (2011) have further proven the great man's worth. Yet, Sono has also indicated a passion for taking sudden career U-turns, frequently exploring unexpectedly minimalist or niche projects or just doing whatever, it would seem, comes into his head in the morning. From his gonzo-shot youth drama Hazard (2005) to the more recent tale of abusive family relations, Himizu (2011), it is difficult to predict what a new Sono project is going to offer.

The good news is that The Land of Hope is frequently beautiful, occasionally resonant, wonderfully acted, but yet also quite frustrating.

Clearly drawing on recent Japanese events (i.e. the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster) as an inspiration, The Land of Hope is set in the near-future and introduces us to a small town which is devastated by similar radiation fallout. The main focus is the Ono family: mother, father, son and his young wife. The four work on the land as cattle farmers. The disaster at their local 'world famous nuclear power plant' forces an evacuation of everyone within a 20 kilometre span. However, the Ono family are exempt, and end up staying where they are, as only a smidgeon from the 'infected' area encroaches on their land. (In one of Sono's most memorable, and affecting, visual touches, their garden is cornered off with yellow tape.)

Father Ono looks after his wife, who is suffering from dementia, which adds to the stress of the situation - and these two soon become the focus of the story. Meanwhile, their son decides to move away with his wife, and attempt to start a new life. However, their paranoia and confusion about both the after-effects of the tragedy and their place in a new, cosmopolitan area of the country, cuts away at the tranquil existence they are familiar with. Causing more stress is the fact that no one - not even official government authorities - can convince Father Ono to move away from his house.

So what do we have with The Land of Hope?

Well, as the film is set in the fictional town of Nagashima (an obvious combination of 'Nagasaki' and 'Hiroshima') nuclear fallout is the prime problem on Sono's mind. Unfortunately, even with the horrifying events of Fukushima still fresh in our memories, there is very little that can be said about this subject other than how inconsiderate authorities are to build nuclear establishments anywhere near civilian populations. The Land of Hope's ultimate problem is that Sono indicates his concern over nuclear power very early on - especially in the scenes where people are evacuated from their small township, and officials struggle with how to contain the inevitable consequences and panic. Where can he go from here? Devastation is certainly shown, but the human cost is - strangely - not indicated. Instead, The Land of Hope becomes more of a tale of family adversary and affection.

The use of 'Nagashima' also draws upon an event that deserves a far more complex discussion. No one, we would hope, believes dropping atomic bombs on any nation is a good thing. All these years later and debate still surrounds the utter brutality and loss of lives that this event inflicted on Japan. However, Sono's symbolism immediately invites discourse about the end of World War II (and Japan's vicious colonising role in neighbouring countries), which it does not provide. Instead, Nagashima works as a metaphor for the innocence of life - an innocence that is consequently disrupted and destroyed. This, in itself, arguably belittles the infinitely more complex reasons that resulted in Hiroshima being targeted for the unthinkable horrors of 6 August, 1945.

Were the Hiroshima / Nagasaki symbolism not present, the use of nuclear fallout would still be jarring, of course, but Sono's heightened melodrama is unexpectedly slight. The relationship between a husband and his dying, dementia-ridden wife would have been powerful in any circumstance - and its placement in The Land of Hope soon takes over everything else. So well acted is this dire predicament by Isao Natsuyagi (who sadly passed away this year) and Naoko Ohtani, that the catastrophe at the nuclear power plant ultimately becomes secondary to everything. Indeed, it feels more like a nuisance to this couple's struggle than something the audience should be more emotionally invested in. Sono's symbolism - of snow, missing dogs, cattle let loose on the street and children verbalising that Japan needs to "move forward one step at a time" is also heavy handed, even if, as far aesthetic metaphors go, few filmmakers are quite as gifted at finding the beauty in the most maudlin of scenarios.

At over two hours in length, The Land of Hope is still a solid watch. The performances are first class and the director's documentary-like aesthetic approach packs a punch. Sono remains a master of his art. The Land of Hope is certainly not a failure, but it is perhaps a bit too blatant and forthright to be anything other than a family drama, Ozu-style, that offers little in the way of humour or deviance from its central theme of innocence lost. If you love Sono's work, this is obviously a must-see, but as an introduction to one of the film world's most interesting eccentrics, we would advise tracking down his more famous productions before tackling this one.

Slight and sombre, The Land of Hope never justifies its two hour-plus running time, but this is still a technically proficient pot-boiler about bad things happening to good people.
SCORE: 3/5
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