“Correspondence” (also known as “La Corrispondenza”) is the kind of romance the Japanese have traditionally loved to love — two people locked in a relationship that barely exists.
In this scheme of things, physical remoteness offsets but strengthens an emotional connection. It’s a concept the Japanese have long revered, from as far back as the 11th-century days of the “Tale of Genji” and leading right up to present-day films, such as “Reisei to Jyounetsu no Aida (“Between Calmness and Passion,” 2001) and the more recent “Hahato Kuraseba” (“Living With My Mother,” 2015).
That could account for why tanshin funin (“bachelor husbands” who work in faraway locations while the wife and kids stay at home) remains an enduring part of the culture. It’s perfectly acceptable for couples to be apart for a long, long time and some even believe it’s the recipe for a lasting union.
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“Correspondence” is directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (of “Cinema Paradiso” fame) and he once again dips into his bag of sweet, romantic confections and pulls out something he shapes into a cinematic vehicle. In “Correspondence,” the central couple live their lives apart from each other, yet share an all-encompassing love. To maintain such a relationship requires compromise and contrivances, but in the case of (largely absent) protagonist Ed Phoerum (Jeremy Irons), this is taken to beyond the next level.
Jeremy Irons described his decision to take on the role in a recent email interview: “Whenever you tell a new story, you wonder whether the audience will connect with it or not. You hope they will, but one only need to see the many films which do not work for an audience, no matter what their budgets, to realize that it is always a risk.
“My guideline is whether or not the story is interesting to me. If it is I will do it.”
Ed is an eminent astrophysics professor in the throes of a passionate but long-distance six-year affair with his student Amy Ryan (Olga Kurylenko). One day he inexplicably disappears from her life and a few days later (this is not a spoiler) Amy is told that Ed has died. At the same time, however, she keeps getting video letters and texts from him, and then she begins receiving home-made DVDs, letters and gifts.
Ed’s timing is uncanny — Amy is reading a text from him on her phone when the doorbell rings with a delivery of flowers. Amy sits down in a movie theater when her phone rings and she spends the entire duration of the movie staring at his messages. She goes to their secret hideaway hotel in northern Italy and is told that she is expected, and the usual room is all ready. In a variety of ways, Ed reassures Amy that he is there, wherever she goes. “It’s just that I can’t touch you,” he says.
There’s been some criticism in the Western press about Ed’s manipulative control-freak streak. True, in many instances he comes off as the stereotypical older man, enforcing loyalty and faithfulness on his much younger mistress. It’s behavior that many in Asia are historically familiar with. In Japan, Bushido once recommended wives kill themselves in the event that their husbands were disgraced or ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), while in India, wives and mistresses threw themselves onto the funeral pyre when the man of the household died.
Irons, however, believes that Ed’s behavior is rooted in simple, personal objectives. “Although Ed does what he does out of love and the desire never to let one’s loved one go, I think his actions may be seen as a little selfish,” he writes.
Maybe more than a little, I think. Pretty soon, Ed seems like the No. 1 candidate for the Stalker Hall of Fame. But Amy is not necessarily a slave to his wishes. Theoretically, she’s free to forget about him and get on with her life, yet she insists on doing just the opposite.
Tornatore unravels the mystery behind Ed’s continuing messages thread by thread and there’s an undisputed elegance in the storytelling. But the communication with Amy is an illusion that is impossible to maintain, and in the last 15 minutes both the hero and the director run out of ideas, leaving Amy stranded in an wasteland of solitude.
Kurylenko as Amy is intriguing as well as significant — she is an actress whose career is peppered with roles that involve absent lovers. She made her feature film debut in “The Ring Finger” in 2005, a movie based on a Yoko Ogawa novel that depicted a woman sharing a hotel room with a man whom she never saw but fantasized about. In “Land of Oblivion,” she mourns a husband who died in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and works as a tour guide in the still-devastated city two decades later.
Whether or not the audience sympathizes with Ed’s behavior or not, Irons explains that, ultimately, “Correspondence” is in tune with his own sensibilities. It’s a story that he’s glad is likely to be welcomed by Japanese audiences.
“Perhaps this shows we (all people) are not that different from each other,” he writes. “Something I have always believed.”
“Correspondence” (Japan title, “Aru Tenmongakusha no Koibumi”) opens nationwide on Sept. 22.
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