An exposition of grief and rebirth

Most of us come out of the closing film of MAMI 2008, ‘The Mourning Forest’ silent. A long film at the end of a long day. Outside Imax, an actor friend says, “You can’t see it as a film, the film maker wants you to experience something, it’s like meditation.” I say, “Yes, like meditation, it makes you restless, the mind wanders.”

Later in the car, a cinematographer friend says, “The hand-held camera was so bad. Terrible.” I say, “Yes, it was almost as if the cameraman did hand-held because he couldn’t be bothered to set up a tripod.” Another cameraman said, “Why did the girl (Machiko, a staff worker in the retirement home) go off for a trip with a patient who was disturbed? Was she mad?” echoing the first thought that struck me when I was watching the film. In a way that sometimes happens when 4-5 people are together, we started laughing about the film. We couldn’t understand how it had won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2007. Though, a director friend did say, “The shots of the wind in the trees were beautiful.”

At night though, I wondered about the film. Sometimes, you can’t see a film very logically, or approach it through the narrative. The story telling is abbreviated; it only evokes sensations. When the old man, Shigeki, senile, locked up in his grief, asks the Buddhist monk, “Am I alive?” the monk replies, “You are alive because you eat. You are alive when you feel sensations.” 

And the film in fact, is an awakening of the sensations that both the old man and the girl, trapped in their grief, have stopped feeling. Through their journey with each other, they rediscover playfulness, heat, danger, cold, hunger, thirst, and life itself, as they move through the forest. 

They rediscover touch. At a family picnic, a couple of years ago, my mother teased her friend, “Oh all our legs are aching, but you can go back home and ask your husband to massage your legs.” And I looked at my mother, and thought, “Yes, this is what she misses about Daddy. How lonely it must be, not to have that touch.” 

When the girl strips to hold the old man, and save him from the cold, it’s not a sexual touch, but basic human warmth which she gives him, which has slowly drained out of him in the 33 years he has mourned his wife.

So often, even when we care for the old people in our midst, give them food, clothing, shelter, we forget that they need too, laughter and touch. Perhaps that is why, grandparents love grandchildren so much, because when their own children forget to touch them, the children clamber all over, with little regard for distance or dignity.

The old man carries his memories with him in a heavy backpack, which he won’t let anyone touch. At the beginning of the film, he attacks the girl for moving the bag while cleaning his room. By the end, when she asks him to hand over the bag because it is so heavy, he does so without even looking back at her, because he has learnt to trust her. And when he finally empties the bag, at his wife’s tomb, a tree, how meager those memories are, a bunch of diaries, letters he has written to his wife all these years, a music box. 

Relieved finally of the burden of his memories and grief, he cuddles deep into the earth, saying he must sleep on it. I thought at first, that his sleeping on the earth signified his death. But realized later, that in fact, it signified his rebirth, his re-entry into life. The sound of helicopters above give a sense of how close the world actually is to them, even though they have gone so deep into the forest, perhaps even lost themselves. The girl holds the music box to the sky, setting free the grief they have both held within themselves for so long, setting free the memories, perhaps hoping to reach the world outside.

Earlier in the film, just after the old man has attacked the girl, there is an exchange between her and a senior colleague. The young girl apologizes for the incident, the older one tells her that no one is to blame, she says, “There are no formal rules, you know.” This is in direct contradiction to what she says earlier, when Machiko first joins work, that there are formal rules to be followed in the working of the institute. Both the girls repeat the line several times and laugh over it. This line, an encouragement to look at things in a different way, perhaps prompts the girl to make the journey to complete her mourning.

The Japanese understand the relevance of seasons, of cycles that must be lived through, and completed before moving on to the new stage, and the significance of ceremonies that help you to complete those cycles. The film takes you through one cycle, the cycle of grief, through the mysticism of nature, through compassion, through sharing. A watermelon, a touch, a journey.

At the Yamagata festival in 2003, I had seen another film by Naomi Kawase, ‘Letter from a yellow cherry blossom’ a documentary on one of Japan’s leading photography critics, Nishii Kazuo. Nishii had only a few months to live, and he invited Naomi to film him. The exchange between the two while he dies, both clicking each other, is moving in its emotional restraint, and also an intellectual exchange on what art actually means, how it works to make sense of our lives and deaths, and everything else in between. 

Isn’t that why we go to watch films, 7 days of MAMI, 7 long treks through Mumbai traffic to Imax, putting aside child, home, work? Kawase’s work reminds me of Ozu’s in its gentleness. It leads me to wonder why so many of our own films that qualify as meaningful cinema are either cruel, or gloomy, or violent, scorning redemption.