“Mogari No Mori (The Mourning Forest),” the Japanese film that crept up from behind bigger-name productions to win the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, revolves around an old man’s unswerving desire to find his wife’s grave.

The main character’s dedication may also reflect director Naomi Kawase’s own commitment to creating art — and her trust in her ability to do so.

“I made a piece only I can make, and I am glad I didn’t give up,” the 37-year-old filmmaker said in an interview in Japan in early May, shortly before leaving for the internationally acclaimed festival.

Kawase recounted the many hardships she faced in making her then-little-known film and the immense frustration she felt in dealing with the French production company Celluloid Dreams Productions (the film also received funding from the French government’s Centre National de la Cinematographie). After all the effort, the film is scheduled to open on a mere a smattering of screens around Japan next month.

On Sunday night, “Mogari No Mori” beat out all-comers bar Palm d’Or winner “4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)” — Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s film about illegal abortion in his native land.

For Kawase, many years of tears, hardships and anxiety gave way to a proud smile as she raised the Grand Prix trophy high in her hand.

“My film gives people an opportunity to think deeply about the message it conveys,” Kawase had said boldly before the festival. “It is not one that people should watch to seek the instant excitement that Hollywood films can provide, for instance. It is rather for those who can spare enough time and want to spend sufficient attention on its creativity.”

“Mogari no Mori,” which is set in the ancient Japanese capital of Nara, follows a relationship between a 70-year-old man named Shigeki (played by Shigeki Uda), who suffers from senile dementia, and his 27-year-old caretaker, Machiko (Machiko Ono).

Shigeki’s longing for his deceased wife and Machiko’s guilt at losing her son (in circumstances that the film never makes clear), take them on a journey of mourning through the serene forest where Shigeki’s wife has been buried for 33 years.

As the odd couple make their way to the graveyard, they contemplate the meaning of life and death. The old man no longer remembers any word but the name of his wife, and this pure devotion to a loved one draws Machiko back into feeling the warmth of people around her and helps her let go of her own past.

The movie opens with a traditional funeral procession weaving through the vast green field of a Nara hillside, and the story develops at a slow pace with very little dialogue.

Kawase explained that the film was her attempt to lay out what’s lost in modern Japan and the Japanese people. She wanted to compile the elements that she thought represented the beauty of Japanese culture and its people — values that had been cherished for years and had started to fade.

This was what she had grown up with and what had become engrained in her mind and body. And she was confident when her ideas for the film started to take shape.

Kawase, who was born and raised in Nara, has always made films based on her life experiences. She began to reflect on death while caring for her aged and frail mother-in-law.

She projected an air of confidence before the competition, insisting that “Mogari No Mori” contained the best qualities she had to offer as a filmmaker.

“It’s much better to see my film than any Hollywood movies (because it leaves audiences with the gift of self-reflection),” she said with a laugh.

She admitted, however, that there had been times when she almost gave up on trying to enter the official competition at Cannes this year, partly because of the difficulties of collaborating with her French backers and rumors that the competition jury would seek more flamboyant filmmaking to mark the 60th year of the festival.

Still, Kawase said she was sure that her overseas sponsors had recognized and properly evaluated her devotion to art and pursuit of artistic finesse. Although corresponding with celluloid dreams worried and frustrated her at times, Kawase appreciated that they had assessed not only the “Mogari” script but how much she had matured as a movie director since winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1997 for her film “Moe no Suzaku (Suzaku).”

The company’s support enabled Kawase to improve her movie-making techniques, especially in recording and editing, she said.

Believing in what’s important to her and persisting in her artistic style, she said, proved her right when she got a telephone call informing her of the admission to Cannes. Kawase shed tears of delight.

“My film is a Japanese film that has no famous actors and the story line is modest too,” Kawase said. “Unless the panel of judges critiqued the pure artistic elements of my film, it would have been almost impossible (to be chosen for the competition).”

Despite having no extravagant funding, glorious Hollywoodesque-touch or stars, she was confident that her film could stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the competition with those by world- renowned directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Coen, and even one of the best-known Japanese film directors, Takeshi Kitano. In the end, Kitano’s new film, “Kantoku Banzai,” meaning Hurray for the director, did not make the competition.

Unlike movies put together by such veteran directors, “Mogari No Mori” stars an amateur actor. Shigeki Uda, who portrays the main character with his memory problems, is a freelance writer turned an owner of a used bookstore/cafe living a frugal life. A strong supporter of Kawase since she made her 2000 film “Hotaru,” Uda agreed when she urged him to take the role despite having never acted before. He spent months at a home for senior citizens prior to the shooting to get a feel for his role, Kawase said. The result is the unearthing of a superb new talent who delivers a performance so convincing that viewers will not be able to help but wonder if the the actor on-screen may really grapple with dementia problems off-screen.

Unfortunately for directors like Kawase, Japanese movie-goers are attracted to the quick fix offered by big-bucks Hollywood productions, which overwhelmingly dominate theater screenings in Japan. Modest, slow movies like Kawase’s have been more accepted and assessed in Europe than Japan. Kawase has received many awards, from Switzerland and Italy to Buenos Aires and Taiwan.

“Making a film is so tough and resembles life,” Kawase would tell reporters after Sunday’s awards ceremony. “There are many difficulties in life. Invisible things, the memory of the deceased . . . we can stand alone when we find ourselves to be supported by such things. Thank you very much for appreciating the movie.”

Before leaving for Cannes, Kawase said the Franco-Japanese collaboration at the heart of her film reflected her hope to help create a place where people with different backgrounds, beliefs and senses of value can coexist. She wanted her audiences to think about interpersonal relationships through her depiction of Shigeki and Machiko because, she believes, this era is full of constant disputes and wars around the world, including personal conflicts in every-day life.

“I wanted audiences to think about how they perceive or judge others, and whether we actually consider other people’s stances by putting ourselves in their shoes,” she said. “I think that there are governments and people who force their sense of values upon others. Because they try to disrespect, ignore or suppress different views or beliefs, so many wars and disputes erupt.”

In her own bold, independent way — slipping quietly into Cannes, where her film screened on Saturday, the last day before the awards, and then winning the second prize — perhaps she can make some audiences sit up and listen.

For related stories:
Doing it her own way — Kawase’s determined path to success

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