Sympathy for the monster
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Sympathy for the monster

Film critic Kong Rithdee speaks with Japan's master movie-maker Hirokazu Kore-eda

Sympathy for the monster
A scene from Monster by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Photo courtesy of CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Great filmmakers cling to their obsessions, fine-tuning them, polishing them, and returning to them over and over as if they were breathing the only air that keeps them alive. Hirokazu Kore-eda keeps telling the story of broken families and their casualties, especially children, often cast adrift and always looking for their rightful place in the world.

His 2018 Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters tells the story of a family of thieves, and his 2022 Broker is about a group of baby-stealers looking for redemption they don't know they need.

In Monster, his seventh film to feature in Cannes Film Festival's main competition this year, Kore-eda tells the story of Minato, a primary schoolboy who begins to display weird behaviours -- cutting his own hair, trying to jump off a car, and running off into the mountains at night. His mother suspects her son may have been bullied by a teacher. But then she finds out the whole thing might involve Minato's classmate Yori, a cheerful, diminutive boy whose loudmouthed father is trying to "cure" him from a disease.

Monster is told in three sections, each from a different point of view. Fragmented and disjointed at first, the jagged pieces finally come together in the final, devastating third act that reveals the destiny of both Yori and Minato. To reveal more would ruin the film, which is slated to open in Thailand in a few months.

At the Cannes Film Festival, we had a chance to sit down and talk with the 61-year-old Kore-eda, one of Japan's most respected filmmakers and probably the best-known internationally. Nearly all of his films were released in Thailand during the past 20 years, and Monster will surely grow his already large fan base here.

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda at the Cannes Film Festival, southern France, on May 18. Photo: AFP

One of the themes in Monster is the lack of communication. The problem in the film arises from the fact that the characters can't communicate in an effective way and it leads to grave misunderstandings. Do you think this is a more Japanese problem or a human problem?

A human problem. This film takes place in a small school in rural Japan. We started the project in 2018, but I think through Covid, we can see that this lack of communication and division in society has been accelerated around the world, and maybe that comes across quite clearly in the film.

Unlike your other films, Monster is told in three separate sections. How did that affect your approach to the storytelling?

It didn't affect the way I directed my actors on set. Yes, it's different from my other films but here I think the storytelling is more robust. The challenge, however, is to keep the first and the second parts moving whilst not letting on what's going to happen in Part 3.

It's like in Rashomon.

Of course that's a film I respected. When I got the script, it was already written in that three-part structure. But I don't want this film to be just about an interesting structure. For me it's important how we arrive at the final point, how the children get to where they get to.

Tell us about your collaboration with composer Ryuchi Sakamoto, who just passed away in March this year.

I don't know what Sakamoto was to you, but for us, from when I was young, he was a star. His music is something I respected so much. But it wasn't just that, it was also his stance on social issues. He was like a respected big brother to me. We didn't have a close relationship, but 10 years ago we had a project that we were supposed to make together but then it fell through, and I thought at that point I would never get a chance to work with him again. But as I was in the process of making this film, he was the only person I had in mind to do the soundtrack. And of course at that point he wasn't well and I thought it might be difficult. But I decided to write him anyway. He watched what I'd put together and agreed to write the music for the film.

Your films are often about children and how they perceive the world. In this film, the story is about two boys who aren't considered 'normal'.

The bullying takes place in class because this boy Yori is considered not normal, or not masculine. The mother and the teacher keep using the word 'normal'. I think these adult values are compressed into children's, and this twisted world view that adults might have gets reflected in the children, and that's what happens in our society all the time. In school, the crack starts to appear and it's representative of [what's going on in the world].

How do you direct children?

There's no one method that works for all children. It's like teaching, you have to find a way that fits each individual child. The same is with directing. I spend a lot of time with my young actors and I spend a lot of time thinking about the role. I think that's it, there's no substitute for time.

The film touches on the subject of masculine vulnerability.

The boys in the film see a monster in themselves because they have emotions they don't understand. Those emotions are normal, but they just can't express them. If someone just told them that it's okay, that would have released them. For me, what happens in the film gives me happiness, because we're celebrating these boys and what they discover, meanwhile the adults get left behind in the process.

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