Encounters with Stars

Tomokazu Miura and Yukino Kishii in Sho Miyake’s Small, Slow but Steady (2022)

Had Sho Miyake’s Small, Slow but Steady premiered in the Berlinale’s main competition, it would certainly be in the running for one of the top prizes. Rising star Yukino Kishii turned thirty a few days ago, and so far, she has already worked with Shinji Aoyama (Living in the Sky), Takashi Shimizu (Homunculus), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Foreboding). In Small, Slow but Steady, she conveys with minimalistic gestures and expressions the conflict within Keiko, a boxer with a hearing impairment, between her drive to win and her doubts about just what it is that’s driving her.

But then every performance here convinces. Tomokazu Miura plays the fatherly owner of one of Tokyo’s oldest boxing gyms. His health is failing, and now that the pandemic has aspiring young boxers calling in to cancel their training hours, so, too, is the gym. With chin-up determination, the trainers (Masaki Miura and Shinichiro Matsuura) tie up loose ends and make arrangements for the boxers who aim to carry on—including Keiko, they’re quite sure, though she herself isn’t—at newer, still thriving gyms. Keiko’s kid brother (Himi Sato) gives the film moments of mild but genuine levity as he attempts to pull his sister out of her funk.

Shooting on 16 mm, cinematographer Yuta Tsukinaga frames masterfully, and Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrian quite rightly singles out the work of sound designer Takamitsu Kawai. In every scene, the distinction between what we hear and what we can presume Keiko is aware of is clear as a bell. Sho Miyake’s film is conventionally accessible in the best possible sense, so it’s a little surprising to find it competing in Encounters, the program that Chatrian and his team created two years ago “to foster aesthetically and structurally daring works.”

Gastón Solnicki’s A Little Love Package fits the bill. A delightfully grumpy Angeliki Papoulia, best known for her work with Yorgos Lanthimos, goes apartment hunting in Vienna with Carmen Chaplin, the actor and director currently at work on a documentary about her grandfather, Charlie. The streets of the Austrian capital seem eerily empty, though no mention is made of the pandemic. Instead, Angeliki talks herself into turning down each and every apartment Carmen shows her, and each reason becomes more comically absurd than the last.

Sympathies are with Carmen until she goes to visit her family in Andalusia and bickers bitterly with her sisters while their children run through the hills and her father, a gentle goat herder played by Carmen’s actual father, Michael Chaplin, smiles benevolently over the lot of them. For some, the seeming lack of rhyme or reason in sequences—such as renowned pianist Han-Gyeol Lie’s auditioning of a prospective student or a Viennese lesson on how to boil an egg—will be a bug; for others, a feature. Personally, the final credits roll is a favorite. We watch a toy sailboat bob over waves as Solnicki plays us a lovely performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

When Ashley McKenzie’s debut feature, Werewolf (2016), opened in the U.S. after picking up prestigious awards in Canada and screening in the Berlinale’s Forum, Bilge Ebiri, writing in the Village Voice, noted that the director’s “use of cinematic language is savvy and novel, finding complexity where others might find only emptiness.” McKenzie’s slightly off angles, occasionally disorienting compositions, and uncomfortably close close-ups are suitable ways to capture Star, the eighteen-going-on-nineteen-year-old woman played by Sarah Walker in Queens of the Qing Dynasty.

Some will indeed find only emptiness in Star, introduced in a hospital after what is evidently not her first suicide attempt. With perpetually widened eyes—and McKenzie loves those eyes—Star doesn’t so much speak as report what she sees in a soft yet piercing monotone: “I’m swinging my feet.” Or, when offered a zucchini, “You give me evil fruit.”

She reports this last observation to An—a name that might as well be short for “angel”—a volunteer from Shanghai who tunes in to Star in a way that we can be sure no one else ever has before. Played by Ziyin Zheng, a remarkable discovery, An—whose ultimate dream, once permanent residency in Canada has been sorted, is to become a trophy wife—gives Star the gift of a guiding star, the example set by the proud and merciless queens of the Qing dynasty. Staring with those bulbous blues at an artist’s rendering of one of these women on her phone, Star messages An: “She’s like a god.”

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