Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Studio Ghibli's first international co-production is a worthy and beautiful cinematic work (film review)

The 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival drew to a close
a week ago but visual reminders of it remain in the city :)

The Red Turtle (France-Belgium-Japan, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Animation Unlimited program
- Michael Dudok de Wit, director and scriptwriter

There were a few children in the audience at the Hong Kong International Film Festival's sole screening of this animated work but I wouldn't be surprised if their parents enjoyed the movie more than them.  Slow paced and pretty much dialogue-less, The Red Turtle also is on the philosophical side, depicting as it does the milestones in the life of a castaway on a tropical island with way more crabs, green vegetation and rocky surfaces as it does human beings, their structures and constructions.  Oh, and its many night scenes are largely black and white, with very few elements in the movie being red and colorful besides its titular turtle.

London-based Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit's maiden feature-length offering begins with scenes involving a nameless man being tossed about by huge waves in a turbulent sea on a dark and stormy night.  Perhaps because of my awareness of its Japanese connection (thanks to Studio Ghibli's iconic O-Totoro appearing on screen at the start of the Oscar-nominated movie, for The Red Turtle is actually the studio's first international co-production), I got to thinking of Katsushika Hokusai's famous Great Wave and also the powerful anthropomorphic waves that feature in Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, On the Cliff by the Sea when viewing the beautifully as well as dramatically rendered waves that prominently feature in the movie's early segment. 

Miraculously, the man doesn't drown but, instead, wakes up on the sandy beach of a desert island that's quite a bit bigger than those which often get rendered in jokey cartoon strips (and almost distractingly reminded me of Hong Kong's larger but at least as equally rocky Po Toi).  Actually admirably resourceful, he thrice builds a raft and bids to sail away from the island, only to be thwarted by what he eventually discovers to be an enormous sea turtle.

Soon after his third escape attempt, the red turtle pays a visit to the island that the man is stranded on and he sees his chance to take his revenge against the sea creature.  At first, all goes as planned but then he becomes overcome by guilt at having harmed the turtle and something magical happens that makes him feel up for looking upon the island -- which turns out to be a veritable Eden, where he is adequately supplied with food, drink and others of his needs -- as a happy home rather than bleak and lonely prison.

Its minimalist storyline is matched by a spare visual style that makes the human figures in the film seem on the simplistic side.  At the same time though, quite a bit of care looked to have been spent on illustrating the background scenery (which one has quite a bit of time to focus on as well as gaze at for much of the movie due to its measured pacing).  Also, there's little doubt that this primarily hand-drawn offering was produced by people who love nature and are eminently aware of its rich bounty but also its vastness and at times scarily temperamental quality.   

For those who're wondering: it's in the appreciation of nature where The Red Turtle feels most like a Studio Ghibli movie more so than its animation style.  Also, it's worth noting that the Studio Ghibli members helmer Michael Dudok de Wit identified as having been the most involved in the production of this film are Isao Takahata (credited as the artistic producer as well as "regular" producer) and Toshio Suzuki (who also has producer credits for this work) rather than Hayao Miyazaki; with Takahata's influence being quite noticeable too in the plot trajectory and the film possessing the kind of depth that animated offerings, even full Studio Ghibli productions, are too often insufficiently appreciated for possessing.    

My rating for the film: 7.5

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