Monday, May 28, 2012

Mad About The Boys

The other day I was riding the bus when a Hispanic man boarded the vehicle with twin boys who were about four years old. Although the children were dressed identically and had relatively angelic faces, it was obvious that the boys had very different personalities.

One was shy, withdrawn, and quick to climb up on his father's knee to find his comfort zone.  His brother happily knelt in the seat next to them, facing toward the rear of the bus so he could check out the passengers riding behind him. Every now and then he would turn to look out the side of the bus and, with a slow and studied method, bang his head against the window to see how it felt.

There is a peculiar, irrepressible magic in the minds and eyes of little boys who have absolutely no fear or inhibitions. Not only do they assume that everything is possible, they're convinced that every experiment will have the best outcome imaginable. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

As adults, many of us yearn for that long-lost combination of idealism, excitement, and bravado. Sometimes we think back to a time in our lives when getting covered in dirt or bruised from roller skating into the side of a parked car was the least of our worries. At other times, we think of one face in particular. Here's the great Sylvia Syms singing that Noel Coward classic, Mad About The Boy.

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Many people have private obsessions which, when allowed to flourish, can drive them to distraction. Mine involves transportation routes. For years, I obsessed about airline hub and spoke systems as I tried to figure out how to maximize my frequent flyer mileage through bizarre flight plans.

These days, I often find myself examining various permutations that will allow me to run errands on MUNI in the most efficient manner. In my mind I can imagine a wealth of scenarios that will take me closer and closer to each destination while giving me the best connections possible (I can run "what-if?" exercises in my mind for hours -- or even days -- before embarking on the first step of a journey).

It's a harmless diversion born of a love for puzzles, but at least I know how it began. Fifty years ago, after the Soviets had launched Sputnik and the Cold War was focused on a race to land a man on the moon, a ride on the New York City subway system cost only 15 cents. My best friend and I had been enrolled by our parents in a Saturday morning astronomy course at the Hayden Planetarium which necessitated early morning treks from Brooklyn's Marine Park neighborhood to mid-Manhattan and back.

Knowing that our parents trusted us not to get in any kind of trouble (we were allowed to spend as much time as we wanted exploring the American Museum of Natural History) and delighted to be riding the subways without adult supervision, we came up with a brilliant scheme which, though it might be ridiculed by adults, was sure to capture the imagination of any boy our age. Using our subway maps, we spent hours and hours fantasizing about how we could ride the entire New York subway system for only 15 cents!
  • Of course, we had absolutely no concept of how long it would take to visit 468 stations along 209 miles of subway routes.
  • Nor did we think about when, where, or how we would go to the bathroom (what's a pay toilet?).
  • We certainly hadn't given any thought to sleeping, bathing, or eating.
  • But we were full of enthusiasm for our nifty little adventure.
Our grandiose dream crashed and burned the moment we learned that the ride from Howard Beach to Far Rockaway required an extra fare. The whole idea had been to ride the entire subway system for 15 cents and now our plan was completely ruined!

I thought about that plan while watching I Wish during the recent San Francisco International Film FestivalKore-Eda Hirokazu’s charming film tells the story of two young Japanese boys whose parents have separated and are living in cities that will soon be connected by a new Shinkansen bullet train service.

Koki and Ohshiro Maeda in a scene from I Wish

The initial premise of the film was based on the kind of idea that sounds like an urban legend. Some people believed that if, on the opening day of Shinkansen service, they were present at the exact moment that the Tsubame (heading south from Hakata) and the Sakura (heading north from Kagoshima) passed at 160 miles an hour, an immense amount of energy would be created that could make a person's wish come true.

Inspired by a shot of four boys standing on a railroad track in Rob Reiner's 1986 film, Stand By Me, the plot of I Wish had to be substantially revised once it became evident that many of the tracks for the new Kyushu Shinkansen line were high off the ground and could only be viewed from a significant distance or from a spot high above the rails.

Ryu and Koichi stand by the railroad tracks

Koichi (Koki Maeda) is a very serious sixth grader living with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) and grandparents in Kagoshima, where volcanic ash routinely falls from the sky. While Koichi's mother looks for work, his grandmother (Kirin Kiki) practices hula in the living room, and his grandfather (Isao Hashizume) tries to decide whether or not to open a sweets shop near the train station.

The introverted Koichi worries what will happen if the nearby Sakurajima volcano erupts and ruins everyone's life.  His closest friends include Tasku (Ryoga Hayashi), who has a crush on one of their teachers, Miss Saachi, and Makoto (Seinosuke Nagayoshi), who loves his dog Marble and dreams of becoming a baseball superstar like Ichiro Suzuki.

Koichi (Koki Maeda) sits on a train

Koichi's rambunctious younger brother, Ryunosoke (Ohshiro Maeda), is living nearly 140 miles to the north with his rock musician father (Joe Odagiri) in Hakata. Ryu is still at the magical age where everyone he meets is a wonderful new friend and the world is filled with fun and excitement (perhaps he was a Golden Retriever in a previous life). As the filmmaker notes: "He’s naturally goofy, very photogenic, and has a charm that allows him to become friends with girls quite easily.”

Ryu is a bundle of hope and energy

When a new bullet train service is announced that will connect their two cities, Koichi and Ryu dream up the perfect adventure: They'll cut school for the day in the hope that their wish to have their parents reunite will come true as they watch the bullet trains pass each other.

After meticulous planning (with their grandfather jumping his cue), Koichi and his friends catch their trains and arrive at Kawajiri Station in Kumamoto. All their plans are suddenly changed when:
  • Makato arrives carrying his dead dog, Marble, in his backpack.
  • Ryu shows up with three girls (girls!) in tow. 
  • As the boys and girls rush to find a place on high ground where they can watch the trains, they suddenly enter the lives of an elderly, childless couple who have longed to enjoy the company of children.
Ryu and Koichi are brothers whose parents have separated

As Hirokazu explains:
"Filming children in movies like Nobody Knows and I Wish really makes me think. I like how they are incomplete and their presence is unbalanced. I begin to see society through their eyes and through their existence (I think this is because I am a father now, but all the adults in I Wish are adults I want to be like). The presence of grandparents is a refuge within a family and I wanted to give the children a place where they could relax and feel safe. I want to be the kind of adult who casually waits for his children to come back from their adventures. At one point in the editing process, our composer from Quruli (Shigeru Kishida) said that the time spent with the children on screen was being manipulated and edited too much by the hands of adults. I was rushing forward to tell the story and his opinion pulled me back to look at the bigger picture. He loved this movie and he made a really good point that I agreed with, so I changed the composition back to how it originally was."

There's much to enjoy in I Wish. Ohshiro Maeda’s exuberance is such a tonic that you’ll never realize two hours have flown by (I love the scene where this precocious fourth grader lectures his father about what is expected of him). Here's the trailer:

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Instead of a big, fat Greek wedding, Reza Mirkarimi’s new film, A Cube of Sugar, focuses on a weekend-long engagement party for a large Iranian family's youngest daughter. Despite the giddy elation of one young boy who, upon entering the family estate, immediately disobeys his mother by running and jumping into the pool, there are serious stresses in many of the adult relationships.

A young bride-to-be (Negar Javaherian) enjoys
a quiet moment alone in the family's garden

You'll find it hard to keep your eye off the boy, however, due to his unbridled enthusiasm (just watch his joy as he triumphantly jumps over the food that has been so carefully laid out on a rug for a dinner buffet). At the moment when tragedy strikes, his eyes register a flash of confusion as he wonders why the room has suddenly become quiet and what could possibly have interrupted his fun. At that moment, you know that his world has changed.

Poster art for A Cube of Sugar

The youngest of five daughters, Pasandide (Negar Javaherian) becomes more and more wrapped up in the preparations for her engagement party as her sisters gather in the kitchen to gossip and dish. In such a large, multigenerational family, there are lots of secrets that must be kept hidden (while the women are busy in the kitchen, one of their husbands learns that he has cancer).

Pasandide (Negar Javaherian) and her sisters

Despite occasional electrical blackouts, modernity keeps encroaching upon tradition. The gift of an iPhone offers a stark contrast to the family's aging patriarch who likes to listen to the news on his battered old radio.

A touching slice-of-life film, A Cube of Sugar slowly seduces the viewer into feeling like he is part of a large and boisterous family (this is a good chance to brush up on your Persian). Mohammad Reza Aligholi's musical score offers a beautiful enhancement to the charms of an Iranian family gathering that Westerners are not likely to experience very often.  Here's the trailer:

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