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Hirokazu Kore-eda never makes the same movie twice, but his four features all share certain motifs—notably death, detachment, and documentary. His latest film, the literally transcendent Nobody Knows, is based on a true story that’s a ready-made metaphor for life in Tokyo, a city of extreme physical proximity and vast emotional distance. Four fatherless children, ages 5 to 12, cocoon in a tiny apartment after their mother abandons them. Mom instructed the three younger kids, whose existence is unknown to the landlord, never to go outside, so Akira (Yuya Yagira) becomes both their surrogate parent and their ambassador to a forbidden paradise of playgrounds, supermarkets, and video arcades. There is but a single possible escape, one that has been offered in various forms in each of the director’s previous fiction films.

It’s not a secret that one of the children eventually dies. That’s what happened in the original case, which occurred in 1988 and inspired a screenplay whose first draft Kore-eda wrote 15 years ago. Yet the film’s central loss is a death that’s symbolic rather than actual: The mother, Keiko (Japanese TV personality and former pop musician You), is as good as dead once she abandons the kids to be with her latest boyfriend. (She never really explains her departure, but surely the erotic appeal of her exaggerated girlishness would be undermined by the news that she has four children.) Continuing to live in the absence of a loved one is the principal theme of two previous Kore-eda films, After Life and Distance. The twist of Nobody Knows is that the woman who’s departed is merely in some other part of town—which to her children might as well be another dimension.

When Keiko disappears permanently, it’s initially not such a great adjustment for Akira. He’s had plenty of practice running the household during his mother’s previous absences, and he knows a few places to turn for help. He’s aware, for instance, of several men his mother used to date, who may deny having fathered any of Akira’s siblings but are willing to slip him some money as they send him away. (As the only one of the kids with a birth certificate, Akira has an officially acknowledged father somewhere, but he doesn’t attempt to contact him.) Although unwilling to divulge the children’s plight to anyone for fear that social workers will separate them, Akira does find a few allies, including junior-high dropout Saki (Hanae Kan) and a kindly convenience-store clerk (Takako Tate, who also sings the closing-credits song).

As the money runs out and spring approaches, discipline begins to break down. The first breach comes when 5-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) insists that Mom will be returning that evening, and Akira obligingly takes his sister to the nearby train station for an arrival that doesn’t occur. This simple scene, with Yuki wearing squeaky shoes and admiring the monorail that swoops by on its way to nearby Haneda Airport, provides the gentlest of premonitions. Later, as the weather gets warm and the utilities are shut off, the kids go to the park every day, both to play and to wash. Rambunctious 7-year-old Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) relishes the freedom, and even reticent, serious-minded 10-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) enjoys herself. Yet the kids’ small pleasures don’t compensate for their increasingly bleak circumstances.

Kore-eda began his career making documentaries, and he’s employed techniques from that genre in all of his fiction films. The memories of the newly deceased people who waited to enter heaven in After Life, for example, were mostly drawn from actual interviews. For Nobody Knows, the director and a small crew settled into a Tokyo apartment for a full year, so that the children’s story would be grounded in real particulars. When Akira’s voice changes, for example, it’s because Yagira’s did. To keep the dialogue natural, Kore-eda never showed his young actors a script; instead, he fed them lines as the filming went along and allowed improvisation. He also employed You as “second director,” charging her with eliciting certain reactions from the children as she acted with them.

Such techniques might suggest a film that was “found” in the editing room, but Nobody Knows is in fact as tightly structured as it is impeccably shot (by longtime Kore-eda collaborator Yamazaki Yutaka) and recorded (by Village of Dreams soundman Tsurumaki Yutaka). From the opening flash-forward to the closing freeze frame, the movie is keyed to its wrenching, chillingly beautiful climax. (Pay close attention to the way the two younger kids first enter the apartment; it’s not just a comic detail.) As in all his films, Kore-eda knows exactly where he’s going—to an epiphany that may seem cryptic to the unsympathetic viewer but should move anyone who enters into the work’s spirit.

Kore-eda has said that the story of the four abandoned children compelled him in part because of his own latchkey childhood, and he’s not the only contemporary Japanese filmmaker who’s fascinated by the unraveling of his country’s traditional extended family. Such directors as Shunji Iwai and Shiori Kazama, both of whose films have been seen in the United States only on the film-fest circuit, contemplate the haphazard lives of teenagers and young adults living with little or no adult contact. Kore-eda distinguishes himself by tempering this theme with his concern for death and transfiguration.

The director may be no more conventionally devout than the kids of Nobody Knows, who have one conversation on the theological affinities of Santa Claus, Martians, and Totoro, a children’s guardian from the menagerie of Spirited Away director Hayao Miyazaki. Yet Kore-eda has a genius for finding commonplace visual metaphors that express the ephemerality of life and the transition to the next world. In Maborosi, whose full Japanese title could be rendered as “Trick of the Light,” death is an illusory flicker on the sea. Here, the afterlife is a quick rail trip from central Tokyo to infinity. Poignantly mingling the everyday and the eternal, Nobody Knows is a problem drama with the soul of a Buddhist parable.

At first, it was enough just to show that Turks actually lived in Germany. After decades of Turko-German cinematic invisibility, such filmmakers as Fatih Akin began by simply affirming their compatriots’ existence. The sometime documentarian’s previous fiction features were Im Juli, an amiable but slight romantic comedy/road movie, and Solino, which analogized the Turkish experience in Germany with a tale of a previous generation of dark-haired immigrants, who happened to come from Italy. Head-On, dubbed best picture at 2004’s International Berlin Film Festival, announces that Akin will no longer settle for such polite stories: This assault on Islamic family values is splattered with blood and semen and punctuated with acts of gang violence and self-destruction. Indeed, the movie is so confrontational that its underlying conventionality almost doesn’t register.

The film opens in Turkey, where a traditional band plays a traditional lost-love ballad. Cut to goth-rock Hamburg, where despondent 40-ish alcoholic Cahit (Birol Unel) is having a particularly bad night at the club where he collects empties and swabs the floor. He adjourns to a bar, gets drunk, gets called “faggot,” and gets into a fight. The battle over, Cahit drives his car to a Depeche Mode tune and deliberately smashes into a wall. This moment exemplifies the film’s German title, Gegen die Wand, which could be translated as “Up Against the Wall,” as well as its English one.

Cahit wakes up in a mental institution, where he meets a young woman who’s even more disturbed than he is. In despair at her inability to escape her strait-laced family, 20-ish Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) has recently slit her wrists—something she does almost as regularly as a less high-strung type might chew her fingernails. Though at first she seems as aimless as Cahit, Sibel begins hatching a plan as soon as she confirms that her new acquaintance is of Turkish descent. When Cahit asks if she can get him a beer, she responds, “Only if you marry me.”

Upon cleaning up to (somewhat) impress her father and brother, who condemn his limited Turkish, Cahit weds Sibel. At the ceremony, a clerk reads the couple’s vital statistics, and Sibel looks surprised to learn that her groom is a widower. (That, it turns out, is the sum total of his grudge against the world.) Following a coke-fueled reception, Sibel moves in with Cahit, but assumes only certain conjugal duties. She cooks dinner and cleans his filthy apartment—“It’s like a chick bomb exploded in here,” he complains—but won’t sleep with him. As his wife stays out all night with other men, Cahit begins to crave a more traditional marriage. Sibel is slower to abandon her freewheeling hedonism, but she comes to appreciate Cahit after he goes to prison and she to Turkey. Theirs is a postpunk arranged marriage: Amid all the fighting, doping, and extracurricular screwing, a convenient match leads gradually to love.

Akin, who was born in Hamburg, eventually has Cahit and Sibel reconnect in Istanbul, where the colors are less electric but the vibe just as sinister. In the most intense of the film’s many violent scenes, Sibel is attacked by three men on the street. When they’re done with her, she staggers to her feet and taunts them until they come back and hurt her some more. Being in this strange land might normalize the couple’s relationship—although the odds aren’t favorable.

More authoritatively directed than scripted, Head-On is equally at ease in its jumpy, nihilistic setup—which takes inspiration from the likes of the The and the Birthday Party—and its quieter, more naturalistic conclusion. The emotional explosions that syncopate the film’s rhythm are precisely embodied by Kekilli, a nonprofessional performer who acts as if she has as much to prove as her fierce character. It’s a shame the film meanders beyond the point where its flame has burned down, allowing viewers too much time to recognize the banality of Cahit’s tragic love and Sibel’s doomed struggle for independence. Head-On would be a less visceral experience if its heroine weren’t variously beaten, knifed, and raped, yet in his compulsion to torment Sibel, Akin ultimately seems as punitive as the woman’s bad old dad.CP