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The Mastery of "Millenium Actress"

What is it about films that take place in and around the process of art itself that make them so compelling? Not every behind-the-scenes film is good, of course, but those that are tend to have an added element of depth to them. It is a type of meta-filmmaking, I imagine: an awareness, even if unspoken, that art about art comments very strongly on art itself. This hearkens back to the origins of theatre, when it was primarily ritual and keenly aware of both itself and its purpose. Two of Shakespeare's greatest plays, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, contain commentary both direct and ironic on the state of theatre as he knew it and how he perceived it should be. "To hold the mirror up to nature", as Hamlet says to the players, and indeed Millenium Actress does just that. It presents the story, or stories, of a single woman named Chiyoko Fujiwara whom was apparently a very great actress during the heyday of Japanese cinema, so great that her exclusive contract with her studio kept the studio alive to the very end. Genya Tachibana, a rather obsessed documentarian, seeks Chiyoko out to tell the story of her life, and the film progresses to show how all of these people figure into her life. Or lives.


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The confusion that might be a little evident in that first paragraph is due to the film's dizzy fashion of magical realism. At first, we are merely watching the past play out in front of us like normal flashbacks, until we notice Genya and his sardonic, lax cameraman actually present in the settings of said flashbacks. As things proceed, Genya gets more and more emotionally involved in what he sees, and fairly quickly, too. Suddenly, there is a massive shift and everything seems to swirl about in time, space, and plot. We see feudal Japan, we see pre-war Japan, we see post-war Japan, all in a very short span. Genya has brashly left his place by his cameraman's side and starts working himself into the action itself, helping Chiyoko out as much as possible. (This is, of course, much to his cameraman's dismay.) Chiyoko remains driven by her singular desire to return to a stranger she has fallen in love with and whom has left an important keepsake with her, but her identity seems to shift with each new surrounding, as if she is many different women. But are these ghosts of the past or merely clips from her films? After all, her time in feudal Japan bears much more than a passing resemblance to Throne of Blood, the great Kurosawa masterpiece adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, down to a soothsayer shrouded in white. A section spent on the moon suddenly trails out to show the crewpeople around her and the false set upon which she sits.

As you can tell, this is an ambiguous film, and ambiguity daunts people. It never daunts me, but I am wary of the effect of ambiguity, because I rarely believe it to be a superior dramatic effect. I see not the supposed success of leaving things unanswered, because clarity is so much harder to achieve when telling complex stories. What is the greater accomplishment: to not answer every question, or to actually answer EVERY question? It was this that colored my disappointment with films like The Matrix Revolutions, and there was a point in this film when I realized the effect it would have on me that I wondered whether this film would tread down that path. But I wondered it for a second, and then I immediately was drawn back into the story. That is a sign of the film's genius. Millenium Actress does not create ambiguity out of leaving things unanswered. In fact, the more you look at this film, the more you find answers scattered throughout. The film is quite clear; it's just that it's quite clear in multiple ways. The ambiguity is created by this multi-clarity, its ability to be several different types of stories. I find it to be quite brilliant, and makes the film instantly rewatchable.

None of this would play if the core characters weren't so strongly conceived. The cameraman is especially interesting, as we learn very little about him and yet he speaks our feelings on the events before us, making him possibly the most sympathetic character in the film. The older actress that Chiyoko encounters and unwittingly sparks a rivalry with is a marvelous portrait of cold, callous jealousy, and also speaks of the plight of the character actor whom must always be two feet behind the spotlight to bolster those within it. The stranger that Chiyoko pursues is the unattainable ideal, both mysterious and passionate, and always five steps ahead of our reach. Genya's story is as compelling as Chiyoko's, crafting the path of a young man bound to the fire of a great artist he both admired and loved, and whom would always remain in her service no matter what. That he is so comedically passionate is to the film's stronger effect, in a gentle parody of our own ridiculous devotions. And finally our actress of the millenium herself, Chiyoko, whom is bound by a curse, be it dealt by the soothsayer or herself, the curse of dreams. She chronicles the rise and fall of burning desire with utter perfection, noting in the end that it is the chase she is truly drawn to. In addition, this finally cycles back into the commentary on art; that she is such a magnificent actress should be no surprise, because she is someone fully in touch with her emotions and her passion. How could the older actress have been the star when she clearly did not have Chiyoko's inner life? All artists should watch this film and learn - to express yourself, you have to feel more deeply than everyone around you.

Four (****) stars out of four (****)


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on November 29, 2003

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