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TinyRedLeaf 2009-03-06 11:34

Departures (2008), Oscar-winning film


New York (Feb 22): Japan's Departures, a film about a man who prepares bodies for burial, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in an upset over the favoured Waltz With Bashir.

"This is a new departure for me," director Yojiro Takita said while accepting the award. "And we'll be back, I hope."

Departures is about a cellist whose orchestra is disbanded and, desperate for work, becomes a funeral professional. The win for the less heralded Departures was likely to further frustrate critics of the foreign film category, which in recent years has gone without nominating several much acclaimed films.

Israel's Waltz with Bashir was one of the most acclaimed films of the year but defied easy categorisation. A kind of animated documentary, it follows a soldier struggling to recall suppressed memories from his involvement in Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon. It won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.

Well, I doubt I'd ever get to watch Waltz with Bashir, but I did manage to catch Departures today, right after watching The Watchmen.

It's strangely ironic. That movie is about the evils of human nature in a world without God, while Departures is about coping with one of the most basic aspects of human nature: Our need to grieve for the dearly departed, regardless of religion or creed (or the lack of it).

At one point in the movie, the main character — former cellist Daigo Kobayashi — asked his elderly boss and his secretary what music they would like to hear him perform for their impromptu Christmas Eve dinner, and whether they have any religious sensibilities he should be aware of, lest he offended them.

His boss good-naturedly replied: "None! Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, whatever. We'll take them (the deceased) all!"

I lost count of how many times I wept while watching this movie, and judging from the quiet sniffing I heard all around me in the cinema, I wasn't alone. Preparing the dead for their next journey is a highly cathartic experience, done more for the sake of the living rather than for the deceased, who aren't really in a position to care any more, anyway.

In a way, Departures is a somewhat melodramatic film bordering on sappy sentimentality. But then again, it's also a Japanese film, and few people do sentimentality as sensitively — or as touchingly — as the Japanese.

The movie deals with other secondary issues too, such as the prejudice against people in the funeral profession, inter-generational tensions between parents and children, and the typical Japanese penchant for romanticising the heartfelt simplicity of rural life.

But the star of the show, Masahiro Motoki, carries the movie splendidly, together with his superb supporting cast that notably includes Ryoko Hirosue, Japan's favourite doe-eyed cutie. Sigh, I used to have a crush on her long ago, back when she debuted in Beach Boys (I guess every guy my age would have, back then :p). She's still very beautiful, and remains a little teeny-bopper despite being 29 years old.

Go watch this movie if you can, especially if you've lost people dear to you. Because then, its simple message would hit so much harder: We all die, and it's hard to be left behind but, nonetheless, the memories and gratitude will last forever.

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