THE LIGHT SHINES ONLY THERE is an instance of subtle storytelling being masterfully utilized to tell a potentially heart-rending tale. The film never inundates with a crescendo of dramatics to tell its gripping story of small town woe, nor does it use any particular moments to tug immeasurably at ones heartstrings. Rather, director Mipo O achieves a slow boil of grief, during which you feel the oppressive summer heat of the small Hokkaido town where the story takes place in every frame, dotting it with poignant moments of humanity when one might least expect to find it.
The conflicts experienced by the film’s central quartet of characters, is not exclusive to provincial locales, but being stuck in a place where everybody knows your name heightens their strife. Everyone is anchored by some sort of burden they drag along. Chinatsu must take care of an ill father consumed with base desires and take on undignified work to make ends meet. Her younger brother Takuji is similarly tethered, baring the additional hindrance of a recent parole hanging over his head. Tatsuo, the stranger who has just walked into town, carries the weight of a fatal accident on a mining job he feels responsible for. Meanwhile, a wealthy farm owner, the closest the film has to a flesh and blood antagonist, uses his resources and influence to try to control passions and break up an otherwise flourishing relationship between Chinatsu and Tatsuo.
Through this simple narrative, the film effectively gets at universal themes: the lifestyle gulf between rich and poor and the nefarious means those with power relative to others in their community resort to when they want get their way.
Go Ayano is compelling as the quietly brooding yet compassionate Tatsuo and Chizuru Ikewaki gives a rather scorching performance, both scintillating and thorny. The chemistry developed between the two is enthralling.
This is powerful filmmaking without flexing its muscles and one of the most beautiful cinematic statements you’ll come across at this year’s Japan Cuts Festival.
THE LIGHT SHINES ONLY THERE plays the evening of July 15 at the Japan Society. For information and tickets, visit the JAPAN CUTS page of their website.