Monday, June 10, 2013

The Woman in the Dunes (Suna No Onna) (1964)

An entomologist and school teacher, Jumpei (Eiji Okada), goes on a trip to the remote lands where the vast sand dunes are. He is there on a research cum pleasure trip to escape from the hustle-bustle of the city. He spends his time exploring the dunes, then traps and collects some sand bugs and insects in tiny containers and tubes that he carries with him.

After he misses the last bus to town, the village locals make him an offer to stay at a local home, which he readily accepts. Only the house is in a sand pit and requires a rope ladder to access. With a rather adventurous spirit, Jumpei ventures in to find that the house is inhabited by a solitary woman (Kyōko Kishida). Somewhat alarmed, but more tired and hungry, Jumpei quickly bonds with the woman over a delicious meal she cooks for him. After a broken sleep that night, Jumpei wakes up to a shocking reality. The ladder that lowered him is gone, and there is no other means of exit. The horrible truth then dawns upon him. In a bizarre arrangement by the village locals, Jumpei is expected to stay on with her forever and help her shovel sand from the pit and haul it up to the villagers above!

Still unable to accept the situation, a furious Jumpei demands answers but only gets some vague explanations in return. We, the audiences, are as dumbfounded as Jumpei is.

But this strange tale told in "The Woman in the Dunes", written by Kōbō Abe and directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara isn't about explanations or the reasoning behind the situation the protagonist has put himself in. It is more about the situation itself! It is rather, a metaphor for human existence and finding meaning in it. Jumpei is a researcher who desires to be listed in a field guide. This could be made possible if he finds a new variety of a particular insect.

This, he thinks is the purpose of his life; at least up until this point, before he finds himself trapped in a sand pit that has now become a microcosm of a self-sufficient universe within which he and the woman are expected to survive. At one point Jumpei questions the woman about the paradox in her existence. "Are you shoveling sand to live, or living to shovel sand?"

Jumpei eventually gives in, and co-operates, for any opposition to this scheme; any rebellion against the captors means no ration (food, supplies, water)! All that is left is to work, eat, sleep and have sex! The latter part comes with the package, apparently. When Jumpei wakes up that morning and before the brutal reality dawns upon him, he finds the woman sleeping naked on the floor, her body only slightly covered by sand blown in by the wind. He calls out to her; she is awake, but pretends to be asleep; just changes positions. Perhaps it is an indication that she is being offered to the man in return for his servitude?

At one point the woman mentions that her husband and daughter got killed in a sandstorm the year before. Could the husband be a man who was brought in in a similar manner? Jumpei keeps his hope alive, and continues to serve. Refusing to get licked by a bunch of natives, Jumpei tries everything in his power. He devises new schemes to escape. Whether success lies in store for Jumpei or not is an added impetus to glue us to our seats as the narrative unfolds in its deliberately paced, enchanting glory.

"The Woman in the Dunes" is said to be a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology who was condemned by the Gods to perform a task of rolling a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again, then repeat the task! The situation reflects Jumpei's futile chore of shoveling up the sand, that only keeps reappearing; a never ending task that is meaningless. So is there any meaning left to life? Or is this constant cycle the new purpose of his existence? An existential crisis indeed! Jumpei's situation also reflects a very common predicament faced by many a man; a feeling of being trapped in a situation out of which there is no escape.

Shot in beautiful monochrome by Hiroshi Segawa, Teshigahara's film is full of striking, hallucinatory imagery. The director loves close-ups. Initially we see a single grain of sand in close-up, then we see how, it is in fact, an infinitesimal part of a large universe that is the sand dunes. The ever shape-shifting contours on the sand are beautifully captured. Later there are more close-ups; of Jumpei, the woman, their faces, their strands of hair, with visibly distinct grains of sand stuck on them! There are erotic overtones throughout. The attraction (possibly stemming from desperation) between the couple is evident, no matter how much Jumpei hates the situation he is in.

These images, some surreal ones and those of the desolate and hot sand dunes are complemented very well by a distant but eerie high-pitched hum in a spectacularly haunting psychedelic score by Toru Takemitsu. Also noteworthy is the use of natural lighting made more evident in a fantastic scene. It is established that there is a single lamp in the room. Jumpei sits with the lamp in the room that appears lit. He then exits the room with the lamp in his hand. As he goes outside, he takes the brightness of the room with him, as the room plunges into darkness, and the outside lights up!

Teshigahara, in his clever use of symbolism shows how Jumpei, in the beginning, takes great pleasure in seeing some bugs struggling to climb up in his slanted test-tube container and being pulled into the sand which isn't firm enough to hold it. He also pins his specimens in a box that holds all the bugs. In an ironic twist of fate, Jumpei finds himself in similar situations, in his numerous attempts at escaping, including the hopeless efforts of trying to scale the steep sand inclines of the pit and one frightening encounter with quicksand! In turn, he has become a specimen being watched by the villagers in the box that is the sand pit! In another ironic turn of events, Jumpei who earlier in the film scoffs at the woman's claims that sand has the ability to attract moisture, later finds that the joke's on him!

Towards the end as you root for our protagonist, you feel like you are engulfed in a blinding sandstorm that has a suffocating and claustrophobic effect. "The Woman in Dunes" is a miraculous film that ends with a twist in the culmination so overwhelmingly powerful, it will leave you dazed. It is difficult to forget that goose-bumpy feeling long after the final frame.

Score: 10/10

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant review Aditya bhai! I agree with what you said about the movie. A truly fascinating visual experience as it is a great metaphoric tale of life and its meaning.