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A director’s defense

by Kaori Shoji

Francois Girard, the Canadian filmmaker who brought to the screen such quirky masterpieces as “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” and “The Red Violin,” changes his style and goes all out in the grandiose “Silk.” His first feature project in 10 years, “Silk” is based on an Italian novel that explores the theme of the “Other” — here, pre-Meiji Era Japan as represented by a silent concubine.

“Silk” was the closing film at the Tokyo International Film Festival late last year and boasts an impressive cast, plus a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Though Girard admits there were things that he “could have done differently,” this was a project that called for scale rather than depth.

“Because the story called for a portrayal of long distances and many different locales, it was necessary to sacrifice some points,” he says. “But overall, I’m satisfied.”

Did you feel that the exoticism in portraying Japan was a bit over the top?

I don’t think so. After all, Japan was closed off to foreigners during that time, and the story is told through the eyes of a young Frenchman who had never been to Asia, much less to a completely different world like Japan. Of course he was going to find it all fantastically exotic.

I am fascinated with the culture here. I feel that Japan is totally different from any other place in the world. And I don’t pretend to understand it. But like Herve, I feel a sincere attraction which I hope came out in the film.

I work for the benefit of people sitting in the dark making themselves available to a dream. And this time, because I was depicting a culture that was so foreign, I really wanted to make that dream as romantic as possible, not easily defined. Because that was how Herve saw it.

Who will identify with the film?

I’m not certain. The setting is France, but we put the dialogue in English, and the original novel is Italian. If I had to name one select audience and one nationality, I would say Japan. This is a Japanese film, very specific about showing Japan. And true to Japanese ways, there’s a sense of restraint and emotional reservation here. Which is why Herve is the way he is.

What was it like working with Miki Nakatani and Koji Yakusho?

They were both very experienced, very professional, but also humble. I found that to be so beautiful. The language barrier worked for us because it forced me to get away from the text and be in an emotional space where I was trying to feel what the actors were doing. It was a learning experience because I think that silent spaces draped with emotion are something Japanese actors evoke very well. They seem to be able to do this instinctively, whereas it’s very difficult for Western actors, particularly English-speaking ones.”

What intrigued you about the novel?

I was very fond of the maturity and originality of the love story, and the way love is described by Herve. He’s sent to the other side of the world, but his ultimate mission turns out to be not procuring silkworm eggs but describing a whole new way of living, speaking and loving. And he keeps going back to Japan because he wants to recapture the otherness represented by the Japanese girl. The obsession is too strong to resist.

But in the end he comes to understand that his wife and this girl are two faces of one love, one obsession. The “Other” turned out to be something very near and familiar. And I found this to be a piece of wisdom that was old and, at the same time, very here and now.