Saturday, August 14, 2004

Review: "Millennium Actress" (2001)

The culture that we are currently a part of, those people who were born and lived after 1900, were reared on the media of television and film. Obviously, this is true for some more than others. But for most of us, when we hearken back to our past, we sometimes see our memories in terms of the action, horror, drama and comedy that we were and are so fond of. Poignant events take on the gloss of a Hollywood production, perhaps even with a soundtrack to further set the tone.

"Millennium Actress" is a sumptuous looking Anime film that uses this concept to wonderful effect. The plot concerns a filmmaker and his cameraman doing a documentary on the life of a famous actress named Chiyoko. The now elderly woman lives in seclusion but allows these two men to come visit and talk to her. As she recounts her memories, she often blends what has happened to her with the events of some of the films she has made, and the two men see her past and her fiction commingle as they themselves are thrust into her narrative.

Early on, we learn that the teenaged Chiyoko helped a fugitive with whom she immediately fell in love. She had known him for less than a day before he had to run off again, leaving only a mysterious key. Chiyoko keeps the key and vows to find him. He told her he was going to Manchuria, and she decides based on this sole fact to take an acting job in Manchuria that has been offered to her. Thus, he helps to guide her life's path.

It is her obsession with this mysterious stranger that is the solid thread that runs through her entire life. All the film scenes that we see mesh with her past reflect her pursuit of this mystery man even when, we suspect, that was not the original plot of the individual films. I cannot help but think that some digressions might have been welcomed where other aspects of her life intercedes here and there. I suppose that is the quality of memory in terms of film: One solid plot line to drive all the way through.

The re-creations of Japanese films will be a special treat for film buffs. We get tastes of period epics, martial arts films, space exploration pictures and even the Godzilla series. The exciting disorientation that one experiences going from scene to scene is hard to explain. The closest I can come is to compare it to the chase scene through the subconscious in "Being John Malkovich". The funniest line comes early when the cameraman is still not quite aware of what is happening. Chiyoko is on a train in Manchuria with the two men when it crashes, and she goes to open a door to get out. When she slams it open, she steps out onto the veranda of a Japanese palace under siege. The cameraman, who follows her out and is bewildered by what he is now seeing, yells out, "Where did Manchuria go?".

The message of the film, in the end, is an old one: It is the journey, not the destination, that is important. Although her life was filled with painful longing, you cannot say that she didn't live a full life. We end up seeing it all alongside the two men and feel very much as they do: to view such a life in both the real and fictional aspects is a true privilege and treasure.

Eight out of Ten

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