By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Sundance Reviews: Cutie and the Boxer, Fallen City
Cutie and the Boxer
Cutie and the Boxer is the story of Noriko Shinohara, a talented artist who sacrificed her own ambitions to support her temperamental, brilliant, alcoholic husband, famed “boxing” painter Ushio Shinohara, and how she finally stands up for herself after 40 years of marriage to finally pursue her own art instead of merely assisting her husband with his.
The film begins by showing us 80-year-old Ushio struggling not just to stay relevant but to establish his lasting legacy in the field of art, but shifts gears as Noriko — who four decades ago came to the United States to study art, met the much older Ushio, and promptly gave up her own aspirations to marry and support him– begins to work seriously for the first time on her own artistic effort. Noriko’s work is a series of drawings called “Cutie and Bullie” that depicts her struggles in her long relationship with her husband; her drawings are honest and emotionally raw; she uses them to gently express both her long-dormant anger and resentment, and to find her own voice as an artist.
Ushio and Noriko live in poverty, struggling to pay their rent, even as a representative from the Guggenheim comes to talk to them about purchasing one of Ushio’s works for their permanent collection. The gallery show of Ushio’s work that opens the film doesn’t go well, with not a single work being sold. Ushio continues to work, and Noriko to assist him as she always has, while Ushio puts Noriko down in countless small ways, referring to himself as the artistic genius and her as his less-gifted helper. Clearly, this is a long established dynamic between the two, but as Noriko expresses herself more and more through her drawings of Cutie and long-held resentments start to unfurl, she starts to speak up for herself, to demand that Ushio acknowledge her contributions to their relationship.
As Ushio prepares for another gallery show, the seeds of a plan grow in Noriko’s mind: to show the gallery owner her own work when he comes to see Ushio’s, in the hopes that finally her own talent as an artist will be recognized. And so it is. The gallery owner proposes a joint show of the husband-and-wife’s artist’s work, forcing Ushio to really see his wife’s abilities for the first time, and this is where Cutie and the Boxer shifts gears into something deeper and more universal.
Ushio studies Noriko’s drawings carefully, and we watch, fearing that he’s going to take his wife’s hopes and ambitions and crush them. But you can see on his face when he’s looking through her drawings a recognition both of the talent on display there, and, for the first time, an introspective understanding of his wife’s perspective on their long history. He makes jokes about the way Bullie represents him, but he cannot really argue much with their relationship as Noriko represents it. Through Noriko’s Cutie and Bullie drawings, the two of them finally aspire, after 40 years of her supporting him, to reach a place of better understanding and equality in their relationship and their artistic lives. Love is complicated, and Noriko conveys this with anger, yes, but also with gentle humor and compassion. “Cutie hates Bullie?” Ushio hestitantly asks his wife, as if fearing the answer. “No,” she replies. “Cutie loves Bullie. Very much.”
Cutie and the Boxer is a beautifully made film, as one might expect a film about the art world to be. There is vividness of color here, and contrast between the pair’s struggles in the real world and the way in which they express themselves artistically. Like all artists, including no doubt many of the filmmakers with films at Sundance, for Ushio and Noriko the financial struggles of an artist being able to survive while still creating are a constant source of tension, but there’s never a time when either of them says, well, we’re not getting rich of this, so we should give it up and get a steady job to pay the bills. They fight and they struggle, but the art and being able to keep creating it remains at the forefront of their relationship through it all.
Above all, this is Noriko’s story, about a talented young girl with artistic ambition who came to the US to become an artist, chose to subvert her own dreams to support her husband in his, and finally, four decades later, found a way to stand up for herself and forge her own path as an artist. Ushio and Noriko’s sometimes volatile relationship reveals the complexity of a long-term marriage between two talented artists, and the pull-and-tug between them as they stick it out through the bad things and find a way to make it work, together.
The quiet, thoughtfully paced Fallen City is a moving documentary about the town of Beichuan, which was completely leveled by a devastating 2008 earthquake. Director Qi Zhao, who previously produced the excellent doc Last Train Home, uses the rebuilding of Beichuan here less as a story about resilience and moving forward, and more as an allegorical tale about the controlling Chinese government using the rebuilding of the town as a bright and shiny PR opportunity to tout the staunch resilience and determination of the Chinese people.
Qi spent four years tracking the trajectory of this larger story through the lens of three interwoven smaller stories of survivors of the earthquake and how they move on: Mr. Peng, whose 11-year-old daughter lies buried somewhere in the rubble of the middle school, struggles with how to help his devastated wife go on while dealing with his own deep grief over their loss; Hong, a rebellious, listless teenager who lost his father and now has only his unsupportive, controlling mother, who seems more concerned with his grades and lack of obedience than with recognizing and helping her son move through his grief; and the jolly middle-aged Mrs. Li, who cares for her paralyzed mother, finds a taste of bureaucratic power in the aftermath of the quake in her job as a community organizer in the temporary village of housing constructed for the survivors.
All of these stories are interwoven with the Chinese government’s effort to rebuild Beichuan and use it as a model for overcoming adversity after disaster, while perky Orwellian voices touts the government’s progress with unintentionally ironic cheeriness, assuring the survivors – and the rest of the country watching – that this shiny new Beichuan will be safe, beautiful and culturally rich; this assurance is mostly lost on the survivors, many of whom have loved ones irretrievably buried beneath the slabs of concrete of their devastated town, but they all struggle to move forward, however mired in their grief they might be. Bit by bit, over the four years Qi takes to shoot the film, the shiny new apartment buildings and business district and town square of the model city that’s being built for the surviving residents gradually grows to overshadow old Beichuan, and eventually the survivors are no longer allowed into the old city even to properly mourn their dead. You’ve had your time to grieve, the government seems to be telling them, and now it is time to put that behind you and move on.
As the new city nears completion and the survivors complain about both the sterility of their rebuilt city and the high cost of being able to get an apartment there, an unexpected twist in the film’s third act underscores and questions the benevolence of the Chinese government as a servant of the people, revealing that even amid disaster and rebuilding, greed and human nature are at work.
Fallen City feels at first like it’s going to be one of those “deliberately paced” films that we see a lot of at fests, but the way in which Qi deftly weaves these intertwined stories and his use of some lovely nature imagery as allegory for fragility, rebirth and survival serve to lend the film a deeper and more poetic meaning. Layers of profound grief, staunchness of spirit and instinct for survival come together to reveal the stories of these three survivors whose stories we see here; their stories in turn become allegory for all those who lost their normal lives and loved ones when the earthquake shook their city down upon them. While you can rebuild walls and buildings, rebuilding the human side of what was lost is considerably more complicated.