Japan’s Tetsuya Tomina is a director preoccupied with presence — a beguiling sense of place or striking actors simply existing on screen.
His second feature, Who Were We?, which premiered in competition this week at the Tokyo International Film Festival, is a metaphysical love story that follows a man and a woman — played by young stars Nana Komatsu and Ryuhei Matsuda — who find themselves on the premises of an ancient gold mine on Japan’s remote Sado Island with no memory of how they got there or who they are.
The premise for the film came to Tomina as he was finishing his debut feature Blue Wind Blows (2018), which was also shot on Sado Island (and later premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in the Generation Kplus section). Walking the island, the director was struck by the sight of a landform known as”Split Mountain” in Japanese, a towering cliff cleft in half centuries ago by the gold mining that took place beneath it for generations beginning in the 1500s.
Sado Island occupies a somewhat spooky place in the Japanese public consciousness. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the ruling Tokugawa shogunate shipped criminals and indigents to Sado Island and forced them to work the mines — often to their deaths. The island is also Japan’s closest landmass to North Korea and it is one of the sights where the Kim regime abducted Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 80s. But Tomina remains fixated on the place.
“When I saw this cleft mountain, there was something about its presence that I was really drawn to,” he recalls. “During my research, I started to imagine the souls of those who worked in the mines and were buried in unmarked graves. But even though the island has a somewhat negative image, the local people are very kind, the food is delicious and the nature is so beautiful — so I really wanted to spend more time there.”
“I began to imagine the mountain as a place between this world and the next, where two characters who passed away might meet,” he explains.
Who Were We? is shot in rich, full-contrast color, framing its characters and landscapes in a retro 4:3 aspect ratio. With just a trace of plot, the film proceeds at a hypnotic pace, as the characters explore the mine and its surroundings, gradually coming to know one another. But their courtship arrives via innate chemistry since neither character has any recollection of who they were in their prior life.
“Since the story is a bit detached from reality and the characters have a kind of blank psychology, I needed actors who could convince the audience just by being present,” Tomina explains. “Matsuda and Komatsu were my first choice and I’m very grateful they said yes because this was a small production and they are big stars in Japan.”
Komatsu, also an in-demand fashion model, is best known internationally for her performance in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, while Matsuda has appeared in dozens of films but made his career breakthrough at the age of just 15 in Nagisa Ōshima’s Taboo (1999).
The director gave his two leads no background for their characters other than the vague hints of biography that are in the script.
“I don’t like for actors to draw from memory or psychology,” he says. “The way I like to shoot my films is to capture the actors simply as they are — to only capture their existence — and that’s the real reason I wrote this story of characters with no memory.”
After shooting his first two features on Sado Island, Tomina says he’s probably still not ready to let go of the place. Of the two projects he currently has in development, one is again set there.
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