As a movie watcher, I’ve no say at which films are booked into my local cineplex and no say in when they play. I’m just the consumer, and the business of movies has nothing to do with me. Except for the buying of the tickets. The result of what I am able to see is also a function of where I live. Some areas are deemed important or prime to the movie distributors, and other areas less so. When I lived in Manhattan, nearly everything I wished to see could be found. Even films that opened in a selective limited release would be screened in New York. This is not the case in Sarasota, Florida. But in today’s world of modern technology, if I can’t see a film in a film theater, eventually I will be able to see it at home via either a film delivery service like Netflix, or I could see it via the On-Demand service provided by my cable company.
All of the above is neither here nor there but is just a part of the root cause of how I happened to watch two films two days ago. The other factors were that baseball has just concluded the 2012 season, football games are rarely scheduled on Tuesday, The NHL is in the midst of a lockout, and the NBA has just started its season. The fact that these two films that can safely be placed under the umbrella category of ‘family dramas’ isn’t that meaningful either, in the context of why I watched them.
What is important is how different these two films are.
On its surface, I Wish (Kiseki) is a film about two brothers, separated by the failed marriage of their parents. One boy, the older brother, lives in Kagoshima, a southern coastal city on the Japanese island Kyushu with his mother and her parents. The younger boy lives in Fukuoka, a city on the north end of the same island, with his Dad.
Both of the boys wish that they could be reunited and once again live as a family. So as we watch, we hope that the brothers wishes come true. We want the family to be unified.
In Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski, the story begins with a playground squabble between two 11-year-old boys. We don’t know what they’re arguing about as the camera is set up at a distance and slightly above this Brooklyn, NY, schoolyard playground. What happens is that argument escalates into pushing and shoving until one boy strikes the other boy with a stick. The result is muted because of our distance from the action, but we will come to learn that the boy who took the blow, lost at least one tooth, and he might lose a second.. The aftermath of the playground scrap is the meeting of the four parents, sans children, which forms the meat and potatoes of the film.
Without getting too deeply into the plots of each of these films , I can tell you that Carnage begins with each of the four parents attempting to come to an agreement about the event, and to reach an understanding that it would be likely best if the boys were brought together so that they could put this bit of ‘boys will boys’ behind them. So the one couple played by Christopher Walz and Kate Winslet as Alan and Nancy Cowan comes to the apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreeet played by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly.
But almost immediately, there’s a difference of opinion about the verbiage in the agreement of the facts being prepared by Penelope. Alan is a lawyer and he registers an objection to the description of his son Zachary, that reads that he was ‘armed’ with a stick. The Longstreets, being reasonable, and civilized people, agreed to the change. So the text that read ‘armed’ was changed to ‘carried’.
Sadly, this was just the beginning of one squabble after another. From genteel, polite, conciliatory, and amenable – the tenor of the meeting changed over the course of the next 80 minutes to chaotic and mean-spirited. What began as agreeable soon became aggravating. What happened that was that these four lost all sense of decency and decorum – in reality The God of Carnage became the unseen presence in the room.
The film was written by Polanski and Yasmina Reza and was adapted from her award-winning theatrical play. What started as a minor squabble between a couple of kids moved on to their parents and became something more akin to a battle-royale rather than the intended discussion. No blows were thrown between the couples but at some point, Penelope starts to smack around her own husband.
Reza has peeled back the outer shell of adulthood and revealed that today’s adults can, in a matter of moments become petty, vile, and as prejudiced about another couple faster than you could ever imagine. She literally peeled away layer after layer of adulthood for us. And what was revealed, or brought to the surface was not a pretty sight.
While the film itself was a vehicle that served to highlight superb acting – the real story of Carnage was that beneath our civilized veneer, there’s a savagery in all of us that can escape into a room, at any time. These adults became no better and certainly not any more advanced (civilized) than small children playing in a sand box.
Kiseki works in exactly the opposite way. The squabbling is between a husband and a wife, and we only are shown a small glimpse of it. Rather than watching a foursome do everything short of eating the scenery to strike verbal blows at one other, in this film the children work towards a goal that is very do-able (at least to them) by using their best wishes and the magic of an urban myth they hope will work for them.
It is set in Japan and as you might imagine, the traditional is side by side with the marvels of modern technology. A melding of the old and the new, and best of all, it is seen through the eyes of the children.
Yes, there is magic at play – not in the sense of not believing your eyes, or guile, or deception, but rather in believing what in your heart wants to achieve.
The urban myth is that the boys have heard that when two of Japan’s modern marvels – the Shinkansen high-speed trains which are also called the bullet trains pass each other at very high speeds (160 mph) on their very first runs, and you are in the immediate vicinity as in near the tracks rather than on one or both of the trains – the power and the speed of the trains would create a force field that would enable your wishes to come true.
So they agree to meet at Kumamato sort of the midpoint between Kagoshima and Fukuoka. The magic is in the preparation for the trip. Money will have to be raised, then they have to figure out a way to cut classes in the afternoon.
Once they meet in Kumamato, they’ll have to find a spot to view the Shinkansen. The high-speed trains do not run on the same tracks as the small and local trains do. So that will be an adventure. This will have to be an overnight trip, so covering stories about studying and sleeping over at a friend’s house will have to be created.
This part of the film is ever so charming. Adults will be more than willing to help them, including Koichi’s (the older boy) grandfather. Ryu is the younger brother and he will bring his own posse of friends two of which are a pair of young girls who are competing for roles in TV commercials.
They search for coins beneath vending machines, they sell off their toys and books. Both brothers work earnestly to raise their train fares. Koichi is even willing to forego his swimming activities to use the swimming tuition money to help to buy the tickets.
One especially funny moment comes when the brothers are talking to each other via cell phones:
Ryu: Do you think we will recognize each other?
Koichi: Are you kidding – it has only been six months. I’ve not changed that much.
Ryu: I’ve changed a lot.
Yeah, and he is what – 8 years old?
Whether or not the urban myth is true, and whether or not two trains passing can create enough energy isn’t the point of the film. The heart of the film is the two brothers and their friends buying into – then executing a plan to allow them all to meet in order to witness the passing trains. The fact that they can even meet in Kumamato is kind of miraculous feat in its own way as Fukuoka and Kagoshima are 380 miles apart.
These are Japanese kids, and we won’t see laptop computers, or tablets, or anything about the internet. Koichi lives in Kagoshima and every one in that city has to deal with the fact that they live in the shadow of a live and active volcano every day. Ryu is a bright, lively, and active child. Everything he does, is done at a rapid pace. You know there’s nothing quite like the energy of kids.
Despite it slow first reel, and the presence of some rather distinctly Japanese cultural facets, the film works for kids of all ages, and for especially for adults who want to take a break from whatever their daily grind might be. Written and directed by Japanese master film-maker Hirokazu Koreeda, the film is warm at its center, entertaining, and watching it will enable you to experience a slice of life that is quite different from your own. Recommended and available on Netflix streaming.
By the way, Koichi and Ryu are real life brothers Koki and Ohshiro Maeda. Their onscreen naturalistic manner and lack of obvious actor-isms make them a joy to watch.
Summary: These are two films that begin with kids in a struggle. In Carnage we watch as adults turn into savage children, unwilling and unable to contain their base urges. What ever is standing in these four adults will be torn down and toppled until broken. Make no mistake about it – this is no tempest in a tea-cup. Instead this is a perfect storm that rages within one single Brooklyn apartment.
In Kiseki (I Wish) we watch children behave sensibly, and meet their challenges head-on. It seems these kids are wise beyond their years. Two brothers are separated by 380 miles and they have different temperaments, but within, they march to the same tune – the unification of their family.
So watching these films back to back showed how polar opposite these films were. And still both were enjoyable. Carnage for its destructive humor that finds a way to be revealed despite the nihilistic characters, and Kiseki for its gentle and sweet direction, and of course, its hopefulness which will stay with you even after watching the film.