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woman in the dunes

I finally sat down and watched Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film Woman in the Dunes and, my god, was it brilliant.

It really is a wonderful, wonderful movie; beautifully directed, filmed and photographed in black and white, with some very haunting and moving cinematography, from the brilliant shots of the shifting, almost-alive sand to abstract, disorientating close-up views during certain segments of dialogue to the detail captured in skin, facial hair and anywhere else that the sand gets to. Wonderful cinematorgaphy, no doubt.

The story is simple; in fact, there’s almost nothing to it. A man, a scientist, is collecting insects in a Japanese village when he is forced to stay the night in the village due to missing the final bus. The villagers lead him to a rope ladder, which leads down into a large pit with a house inside. That night, he sees the woman shovelling sand, which is then hauled up out of the pit by the villagers. The next day, the ladder is gone.

The woman tells him: “If we stop shovelling, the house will get buried. If we get buried, the house next door is in danger.” She also later informs him that the villagers sell the too-salty sand to construction companies under the table, at a cut-rate price. Ridiculous concept on paper, I know, but you know what? Not once during the time I was watching the movie did that thought cross my mind. The fact is that the movie looks and feels realistic and not even the improbably-steep walls of the pit can detract from that.

He tries to escape, but soon begins to accept the situation (triggered, perhaps, in part by a certain event I shall not mention, just in case someone decides to call me out for spoiling the thing) and soon the movie shifts from a portrayal of desperation (on part of the man) and the oppressive situation the two of them are in (basically, forced to shovel sand night in, night out, for what?) towards the tense, strangely erotic sense of physical attraction between the two of them, handled in a way that modern directors can’t seem to equal.

In the end, he gets a chance to escape, but decides not to.

Some will scoff at the seeming lack of plot, but the movie isn’t about the plot. It isn’t about the sand, either. It’s about, to quote what Roger Ebert said in his essay about this very film, “life.” And it handles that topic exceedingly well.

The performances by both Eji Okada and Kyoko Kishida in the lead roles are, without a doubt, wonderful: managing to capture everything from the desperation of a trapped and thirsty man towards the aforementioned eroticism without once seeming like they’re acting it out for the camera.

I will have to admit, though, that yes, the film does drag a bit on occasion, and that it is quite slow-paced and will probably be boring to some, but you know what? It doesn’t detract from the movie at all.

The movie is a wonderfully bleak, haunting, beautiful and almost existentialist (it occasionally brings to mind some of Albert Camus’ works) look at life and the relationship between a man and a woman. It is perhaps a bit odd, I will admit, but since when was “odd” a bad thing? “Odd,” to me, is a good thing.

A mighty good thing indeed.

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Categories: the silver screen
  1. xchematx
    Sep 14, 2008 at 15:41

    film woman in the dunes.mcm best saja.

  2. Sep 14, 2008 at 15:42

    memang best. kalau kau nak aku boleh burnkan untuk kau satu copy.

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