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WOMAN OF THE DUNES
aka SUNA NO ONNA
UK: BFI (Access)
Cast: Eiji Okada, KyOko Kishida, Hiroko Ito, Koji Mitsui, Sen Yano, Kinzo Sekiguchi, Kiyohiko Ichiha, Hiroyuki Nishimoto, Tamutsu Tamura
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Language: Japanese (English subtitles)
UK: 124 mins
UK Certificate: 15 contains moderate sex and sexual assault
UK Release Date: 16 July 2004
One of the great Japanese classics of the 60s, Hiroshi Teshigahara's fable (taken from Kobo Abe's novel) remains as mystifying, serene and provoking as when it was first released. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1964 and nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film (1964) and Best Director (1965), WOMAN OF THE DUNES, Teshigahara's second feature, combines an extremely erotic drama with a terrifically gripping thriller and a compelling metaphorical account of the human condition. It is also a work of great visual inventiveness and beauty.
The story opens with Jumpei Nika (Eiji Tokada), a teacher who has been collecting insect specimens, who misses the last bus home. He's offered shelter by locals in a house at the bottom of a sandpit, which is the home of a young widow (Kyoko Kishida). The next morning he awakes to find that the rope ladder, the only means of exit, has been removed, but he believes that it will reappear soon enough. He agrees to help the woman in her nightly labour of shovelling away the sand that threatens to bury them, and it slowly comes to him that not only is he a prisoner, but that he must shovel sand in order to survive. He becomes increasingly frantic, but the oppressive confinement of their situation and the force of physical attraction inevitably leads them to become lovers. But like their environment, their relationship is unsustainable, as Jumpei becomes increasingly obsessed with freedom.
The visual impact and surreal imagery of the film is remarkable - the high-contrast black and white compositions, the abstract patterns, the unconventional notions of scale and the detail of patterns and texture. The performances of the two leading players - who had to work under hot, sticky conditions, surrounded by the ever-present walls of sand - are equally striking. Kyoko Kishida, in particular, brings out the woman's weird obsessiveness, becoming increasingly human as the story progresses.