When 59-year old Noriko Shinohara calls herself “Cutie,” you’ll want to take her word for it. She grabs the viewer at the opening scene of the documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” which plays out like something from an early Jean-Luc Godard movie: It’s early morning, and she’s brushing out her long, silvery hair, tying it up into pigtails that offset a surprisingly smooth face. You’re already a fan, whether you see the rest of Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary or not.
But then you’d miss out on an outrageously wonderful love story between Noriko and her 80-year old husband, Ushio, in the excessively bohemian Brooklyn apartment where they’ve lived for the past 40 years.
“I need money,” says Noriko to Ushio (who goes by the nickname of “Gyu-chan”), in a mixture of Japanese and English. “We need 1,000 for rent and maybe 800 for other things.” Four decades of Brooklyn living (in the hip Dumbo district) hasn’t washed out Noriko’s Japanese-English: “rent” is “rento,” and “thousand” is “sauzan” — accent on the “Z.”
Ushio grunts, unwilling to give a straight answer. His mind is on other things, namely his art. Ushio and Noriko head toward his atelier, which looks like a shack on a rooftop, where the couple usually spend their mornings. As Noriko looks on, Ushio strips to his shorts, dons goggles and boxing gloves, dips the gloves in paint and proceeds to punch a large canvas. “Finished,” he says, at the dripping scrawl that can be described as brilliant or insane. The process has taken him all of two minutes.
“Cutie and the Boxer” is Heinzerling’s first feature film, though he’s worked a number of years in TV and cinema. Being Brooklyn-based, he had noticed Noriko in his neighborhood before discovering she was one half of an eccentric artist couple.
Initially the documentary was about Ushio, who had hung around on the fringes of art stardom without quite getting there since his arrival in New York in the 1960s. But after befriending the couple, Heinzerling shifted his focus from Ushio and his art to Ushio and Noriko as a pair, their story told through Noriko’s autobiographical artwork entitled “Cutie and Bullie.” In it, she reveals how Cutie as a 19-year-old art student was seduced by the much older Bullie, and then made to shell out the rent.
As with the opening sequence, Heinzerling (who does his own cinematography) lingers on the details of the Shinoharas’ life — bickering over money, Ushio’s atrocious table manners, Noriko’s sad sigh when their 40-year-old son comes over and asks if there’s any booze. (Ushio’s own alcoholism apparently plagued the household for years.) “I feel relieved when Gyu-chan’s not around,” says Noriko at one point. “The air in the house feels better.” Yet when he comes back she’s quietly aflutter with restrained happiness.
“You’re not an artist; you’re my assistant,” says Ushio in his classic Bullie mode. Noriko ignores him and works on her own drawings. At times, these two may hate each other. But Cutie and her bully of a husband are locked in love, and the conviction is this movie’s biggest payoff.