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Hanging Garden
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by Brian McKay

"Familial Dysfunction, Japanese Style!"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL - While the theme of screwed-up families is certainly nothing new to filmmaking, director Toshiaki Toyoda approaches the subject matter with a unique directorial and cultural perspective. In HANGING GARDEN, he introduces us to the Kyobashi family, and while they aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as, say, the Yamazaki family from Takashi Miike’s VISITOR Q (Takashi Miike = ‘nuff said), the Kyobashis have their share of problems nevertheless.

Holding the family together is Eriko (played brilliantly by Kyôko Koizumi), a housewife who sees her family off every morning and works part-time at a diner to help make ends meet. Although she usually appears to be smiling and content, especially when working on the patio garden of their apartment, Eriko carries the bitter weight of a troublesome childhood and unfulfilled expectations behind the smiling façade. Although she insists that her family live by the credo of “No Secrets,” Eriko has more than a few of her own, as does every member of her family. Although they are often open and brutally frank with each other about subjects most families would find taboo, each of them is holding something back. Husband Takashi (Itsuji Itao) often ditches work to spend time with an abusive mistress, one who eventually comes to tutor the Kyobashi’s teenage son, Ko (Masahiro Hirota), a quiet Otaku (shut-in) who spends most of his time on the computer. Meanwhile, older daughter Mina (Anne Suzuki) ditches school to spend time with strange men in the “Love Hotel” where her parents conceived her, after an attempt to have sex with a boyfriend leaves her unsatisfied.

Rounding out the cast with flair is Eriko’s mother, played by Michiyo Ôkusu (seen most recently by Western audiences in Beat Takeshi’s remake of Zatoichi). A chain-smoking old woman who frequently wears Kimonos and spends much of her time in the hospital refusing to die (or to quit smoking), Eriko’s mother is a brash and cantankerous soul. Eriko frequently visits her and takes care of her, even though she believes that her mother never really loved her or wanted her. But as Ko tells her one day in passing, “The problem with obsessing about something is that it blinds you to reality.” It is Eriko’s fixation on trying to have the “perfect” family, and on blaming her mother for her unhappy childhood, which blinds her to the reality of her life, and her family.

Hanging Garden is a stirring film, both visually and emotionally, deftly examining its themes of familial discord and unity through both sharp dialogue and quiet, pensive moments. From a visual standpoint, the film is simply gorgeous, employing a variety of zooms, close-ups, and the occasional computer-generated imagery. But the characters, and the emotional bonds between them, are what make it such a moving film. While the entire cast gives polished performances, it is Kyôko Koizumi’s portrayal or Eriko that gives Hanging Garden its emotional center – much like Eriko holds together the disparate elements of her family. But in a wider sense, Toyoda’s film is an exploration of the problems that plague a modern Japanese family, giving us a unique view that can be appreciated by those both within and outside of the filmmaker’s culture.

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originally posted: 03/02/06 06:39:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Independent Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Independent Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

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