The Japanese Dog
Directed by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu
May 21–27 at MoMA
The Japanese Dog has the look of a thoughtful arthouse character study, with its generally still camera, long, deliberately paced takes, and habit of artfully framing characters through doors or windows to make a painterly tableau of quiet, everyday actions. But while classics of this genre, like Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, weight quotidian household routines and family relationships with great meaning and suspense by laying bare the emotional fault lines underlying the status quo, The Japanese Dog never quite cracks the surface.
A recent widower who lost everything in a flood that swept away much of his village, Costache Muldu (Victor Rebengiuc) is emotionally shut down when we first see him, deflecting the kindly solicitations of his neighbors as he methodically gathers up supplies and carts them to his sparely furnished new home. Then his long-estranged son Ticu (Serban Pavlu) arrives from Japan to memorialize his mother, bringing a wife (Kana Hshimoto) and son (Toma Hashimoto) Costache has never met, and the older man’s reserve dissolves into unconditional love and sweetness.
The minimalistic dialogue lays out the basics of Costache’s dilemma: his newfound family won’t stay in Romania with him, but they want him to move to Japan with them. Medium and long shots (close-ups are so rare that we are about half an hour into the movie before we get a good look at his face) situate Costache in relationship to his environment as he works his land, strides purposefully here or there to find what he needs, or interacts with friends he has presumably known all his life, driving home how thoroughly he is integrated into this place. At the same time, we see his love for his family in shots like one where the camera perches just behind his shoulder to watch with him as his daughter-in-law, framed by an open door, lovingly puts his grandson to bed down the hall.
The sparseness of the dialogue feels realistic and bracingly unsentimental. But, combined with the paucity of close-ups and low lighting (Costache has been living by candlelight since the flood) that make it impossible most of the time to see Costache’s face, the movie’s long silences leave us to guess at what Costache is thinking or feeling. And so, when he picks up his suitcase and gets into a cab at the end, I didn’t know whether he was just visiting his son or leaving home to move in with him—and I didn’t much care.