by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
(Japan 1997, 61min – aka It’s Keiko; Keiko Desu Kedo) not available on DVD
Director, Writer Sion Sono Starring Keiko Suzuki
Keiko Suzuki is a 21 year-old girl. Her father passed away a year ago and the film (part diary, part document, all fiction) depicts her life and her grief, which lasts.
We see a clock and she counts the seconds. 1, 2, 3, she walks down the street for minutes on end counting each step as she goes (as you can imagine this can dip into boredom a couple of times, but not only briefly). The passing of time fascinates her; her loss has made her aware of what comes and goes. Each second a struggle without him, each second forward to, perhaps, peace. She is comforted and daunted by the fact that life goes on regardless; what moves seems to be standing still, what stands still seems to slip away. Time is even more of a fetish here than in Wong Kar Wai’s stories.
We will see her smile a little, and watch her continue to return, almost imperceptibly, back to herself.
At the very beginning, she tells us that the film will last precisely 1 hour, 1 minute and 1 second, after which we can leave (“This film will be over at exactly 8:23”). She doesn’t want to intrude but she appears to need us as an audience (she lives alone) and, frankly, when that 1 hour, 1 minute and 1 second is over, it has been a privilege. How often do we feel as an audience that we are of use? Therefore I expected the film to end exactly as it did, with one simple word in Japanese, two in English.
She stares out of the window, she cleans shelves. After a while, as if more comfortable with us and herself, she presents humorous news reports on what she’s done during her day. She shows us what her father has left behind : “…This is the fountain pen my father once gave to me as a present. This is a letter my father once wrote me. This is a present my father bought for me in Hawaii. This is the daughter my father gave life to. Keiko Suzuki”
This would all be very sentimental were it not so unassuming.
In the long shots of empty rooms, still lifes of a box of her father’s bones, or of Keiko staring at us for a couple of minutes (truly mesmerising if you return the gaze), I Am Keiko has a soft minimalism; that is, one that never reaches starkness. One is reminded of the films of Robert Bresson for how we are concentrated on essentials without emoting or superfluous details of character or motivation. She does recount highlights of her past, her physical attributes, likes and dislikes (as Amelie would do so charmingly a few years later or indeed, less charmingly, Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone) only to say “what you can get from this I’m not sure. I don’t know. No idea”.
When we get to know someone we generally, genuinely, feel closer to them. Here we get to know them simply by being close to them, observing and sharing as much as Keiko, still sad and raw, will allow us.
These types of films can often be self-congratulatory, wallowing in finely honed and fragile tragedy. There is nothing in I Am Keiko (an affirmation that she still exists) that manipulates reactions like a hammer-tap to the knee manipulates reflexes.
There is no plot to speak of but plenty to be spoiled – little surprises, expressions, ideas and angles. It holds your attention, is beautifully paced, contains lovely images and is amusing too (I don’t think I’ve come across a character reading out the end credits before). Like all of Sono’s films, it has the energy and freshness of a debut work.
In short, a fine film.
Sion Sono is best known for 2001′s Suicide Club and best loved critically for 2009′s Love Exposure. I Am Keiko is unavailable on DVD but can be found on YouTube unsubtitled. Subtitles can be easily found and it is well worth the effort.