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Message to Love:

The full Japanese title of documentarian Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first fiction film is Maborosi no Hikari, which means “illusion of light.” That refers to a specific phenomenon that is eventually mentioned, but for the English-speaking audience the title could have been abbreviated to Hikari just as aptly as Maborosi. For light itself is one of the stars of this austere masterpiece, which is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

Shot entirely with natural light and principally in long and medium shots, Maborosi is a series of incandescent almost-still-lifes. Although the latter part of the film takes place beside the sea, Kore-eda and cinematographer Masao Nakabori don’t engage in mere scenery-mongering. The film opens in a shabby section of unglamorous Osaka and later moves to an equally mundane, if more dramatically located, fishing village. Kore-eda and Nakabori find the beauty in sunlight dappling peeling paint, or darkness enveloping weathered wood. One of the loveliest shots is of a simple tunnel, where the contrast between exterior light and interior darkness is underscored by the reflections of sunlight glistening in a puddle inside the tunnel’s shadows.

The film’s austerity—both visual and emotional—suggests such European transcendentalists as Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Krzysztof Kieslowski, as well as their chattier Japanese counterpart, Yasujiro Ozu. Kore-eda has also cited Spain’s Victor Erice and Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien as influences. (The film’s stark score is by Chen Ming-Chang, who composed the music for Hou’s Dust in the Wind, which screened in March at American University; Kore-eda has also made a documentary about Hou.) Like Ozu, Kore-eda usually keeps the camera in a fixed position, although he doesn’t always take Ozu’s vantage point, that of a person seated on a tatami. As the film tentatively opens up, the director shoots some scenes from above, and even allows himself a tracking shot for a scene where children go exploring.

Maborosi’s scenario was adapted by Yoshihisa Ogita from a story by Muddy River author Teru Miyamoto (who asked $10 for the rights). Yumiko (the lovely Makiko Esumi, a former fashion model and pro volleyball player) lives in a small Osaka apartment with her husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano), a childhood friend, and their newborn son, Yuichi. The film opens with her dream of the day, perhaps a decade before, when her grandmother left the family home to return to her home village to die. “I wonder why I couldn’t stop her,” muses Yumiko.

You can’t stop other people from disappearing, of course, as Yumiko is soon to learn again. One night, Ikuo doesn’t come home. A policeman eventually arrives to tell Yumiko that her husband was struck by a train, an apparent suicide. Yumiko identifies her husband’s bicycle key and then returns to her apartment, where trains can frequently be heard rumbling by.

Four years later, Yumiko and Yuichi head north to Noto. Her neighbor has found her a new husband, Tamio (Takashi Naitoh), a widower with a young daughter. She settles in and even seems happy in the small town, where the lapping of the waves replaces the clatter of the trains. Like her previous existence, Yumiko’s new life is modest, even grubby, but also timeless and serene. (The Japan of Maborosi is the still-extant one of small factories and remote fishing villages, touched but not transformed by contemporary technology and media.)

Then Yumiko travels to Osaka for her brother’s wedding, a trip that reawakens her grief and confusion. When she returns to Noto, she’s distant and inconsolable. Finally, she dares to express her feelings. Shot as a silhouetted long shot, this emotional breakthrough is demure by the standards of American family psychodramas. In the context of this hushed film, however, the moment is explosive. After Maborosi promises nothing more than pictorial beauty and haunting intimations of loss, its climax is quietly wrenching.

Tamio explains that his father, a retired fisherman, had seen mirages—maborosi no hikari—of the sort that can lead sailors dangerously into the unknown. People themselves could just as easily be mirages, however: Ikuo and Yumiko’s grandmother vanish forever, while Yuichi, Tamio’s daughter Tomoko, and family friend Tomeno, despite discreetly ominous sequences when they disappear, return safely. People, Maborosi suggests, can stay or go, and both are mysteries. The film has a Zenlike acceptance of the world’s larger forces—death, nature, the ocean—while recognizing that such acceptance is not a simple thing.

Kore-eda’s documentaries include films about a Japanese man of Korean descent and a man living with AIDS, so themes of alienation and loss are not fresh territory for him. Here, however, the message is almost entirely metaphorical; there is no scene where everything is explained. Instead, life and loss are expressed in the play of light: glimmers on a puddle, reflections from a mirror, a stray flicker inside a darkened room, a bicycle light penetrating the gloom. Maborosi captures human existence in luminous fragments, exquisite and evanescent.

The 1970 Isle of Wight rock festival was supposed to be another Woodstock, so Murray Lerner’s Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival was supposed to be another Woodstock. The filmmaker was convinced he had a more interesting movie than that, however, one that chronicled the increasingly ugly confrontation between the rock industry and hippie idealism. For years, however, Lerner couldn’t find anyone to back such a documentary. By the time the BBC finally chipped in $1.5 million to complete the film, Message to Love was on schedule to become a 25th-anniversary commemoration.

It’s just as well that the process took so long, since the all-music film Lerner’s prospective backers wanted would have been as inessential as, well, the director’s own Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight Festival, which screened last month at Filmfest DC. Although the festival’s historical importance is partly musical—it was the site of the last live performances by both Jimi Hendrix and the Doors—the sociopolitical conflicts easily upstage such what-did-anyone-ever-see-in-them acts as the Moody Blues, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, and Tiny Tim.

In August 1970, some 600,000 rock fans made their way to the Isle of Wight, which is accessible only by ferry. Only about a 10th of those people actually paid the 3-pound admission price, however, meaning the promoters were scrambling to pay the bills even as the five-day event continued. Thus Message to Love’s two ongoing concerns: money, and the inevitability that the most combative of the kids outside the fence would eventually breach security.

Before the music starts, the attitudes seem safely predictable: An aging neighbor, a British-intelligence veteran, denounces the festival as a front for communism and “black power.” (The only time black people are visible, however, is when Hendrix or Miles Davis are onstage.) A hippie proposes that “a new species is emerging.” That new species was to perish moments after leaving its cocoon, however. As an opening title notes, the Isle of Wight festival was “the last and largest event of its kind.” Leonard Cohen sings his stupidest song, “Suzanne,” but then says something smart: “It’s a big nation, but it’s still weak,” he counsels the Woodstock Nationalists. “It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim land.”

Nonetheless, the free-music forces do claim the territory they covet, at least temporarily, while MC Rikki Farr tries vainly to keep things groovy. As for the music, it’s hard to tell if it was worth the fight. Lerner selects mostly sequences in which the performers interact with the audience, usually uneasily, from John Sebastian’s good-old-hippie-boy injunction to “smoke a joint for me” to Joni Mitchell’s outraged-artist protest that “you’re acting like tourists. Give us some respect!”

Something happened on the cusp of the ’70s, in the wake of Altamont and Kent State, but the stakes don’t seem especially large in this film. “Got the A-bomb on my mind,” intones Jim Morrison, but who ever believed him? Mostly, Message to Love makes the era’s youth rebellion look pretty trivial—to everyone except the Isle of Wight Festival’s creditors.CP