Most spectators will know Sang-il Lee from his impressive narratives Villain (2010) and Rage (2016) – both adaptations of novels by Shuichi Yoshida. For his newest film, Sang-Il Lee delves into similar themes as his Shuichi Yoshida adaptations, by bringing Yuu Nagira’s award-winning novel Rurou no Tsuki (2019) to the silver screen. Can he deliver another fabulous experience?
One rainy evening in a local park, Sarasa Kanai (Tamaki Shiratori), who is getting soaking wet, is offered the shelter of an umbrella by 19-year-old university student Fumi Saeki (Tori Matsuzaka). He invites her to his apartment. Sarasa accepts as she feels unwanted. Not only did her mother abandon her to live with her boyfriend after her father died of cancer, but Kanai’s aunt, who took her in, treats her as a nuisance and neglects her. The next day, she promptly asks him if she can stay with him.
Fifteen years later, Sarasa Kanai (Suzu Hirose) is living together with Ryo (Ryusei Yokohama). He wants her to meet his parents and get their approval to marry. Yet, not much later, she accidently encounters Fumi Saeki, who works as a bartender in a night-time coffee bar called Calico. She keeps returning to the shop to be in his presence. Yet, it does not take long for her suspicious fiancée to find out.
Wandering offers a highly intimate exploration of the different dynamics that animate and, at times, complicate the fabric of relationships. In more precise words, with this narrative Sang-il Lee corroborates the psychoanalytic thesis that the familial ‘oedipal’ structure determines the relational logic of the adult subject, but also unearths how the indulgence in the imaginary field of harmony, phallic possession and pleasure, effaces, more often than not, the space where the other’s subjectivity can appear and be heard.
Some spectators might be inclined to call Wandering a tragedy of mis-understanding, but in truth the narrative unearths the violent repercussions of subjects and a society that understands. It is the ready-made understanding, fuelled with the good that society promotes, that organizes the trauma of Sarasa Kanai and Fumi Saeki.
To gain some grasp on the societal dynamic of imaginary understanding, we need to start from the beginning: why does Sarasa Kanai trust Fumi Saeki immediately and why does she willingly follow him so willingly to his apartment? The narrative elegantly evokes that his act of kindness – i.e. giving her shelter under her umbrella, is received by Sarasa as a sign of love. The reason why his act attains this quality is simply because it affirms Sarasa’s existence as a subject and attacks her sense of feeling abandoned and undesired. He continues to recognize her as subject by granting her the right to speak and the space to put a sliver of her subjectivity into signifiers.
It is also because he keeps granting her a space for her subject that she is able to tell him that Takahiro, the fourteen-year-old son of her aunt, often sneaked into her room at night to touch her all over her body. This ‘sexual’ touching is – and this will not surprise anyone – of a radical different nature of Saeki’s act of kindness. Rather than affirming her existence as subject, Takahiro’s lustful touching radically reduces her to an object-to-be-enjoyed and effaces her as subject – Asking him to stop is futile.
The relational truth between Sarasa and Fumi Saeki remains unperceived by the Other, because the societal field, by deeming Sarasa a victim of abuse and Fumi Saeki a lustful abductor, misrecognizes Sarasa as speaking subject. The societal eye, by ‘knowing’ what it sees, fails to perceive the true source of her suffering. As the Other has decided what her trauma is – i.e. her abduction, her signifiers are not taken seriously and the fragments of subjective truth she succeeds in verbalizing are dismissed. In other words, the societal Other re-traumatizes her by reducing her to a mere passive victim-object (Psycho-note 1).
Later, when Sarasa’s adult, the media exploits the ‘good’ understanding of Sarasa and Fumi’s past to feed the masses their moment of pleasure and grant them their chance to enjoy their sense of righteousness (e.g. defacing the facade of Fumi’s workplace). That Ryo creates this burst of mediatized pleasure – either to destroy her or as a last attempt to force her back into his arms – is not truly important (Narra-note 1). The true problem lies in the fact that this whirlwind of ‘good’ pleasure erases any possibility for Sarasa’s subjective truth to be heard. Fumi and Sarasa are merely mediatized images-to-enjoy for the public.
Sarasa’s sudden decision to spend her nights at the coffee shop gives the spectator an insight into the relational dynamic that underpins the mendacious image of relational harmony between Ryo and Sarasa. Her subjective act reveals how much control Ryo attempts to exert over her. In his attempt to protect her – a duty he appropriated, he does not merely install a suffocating prison that, when starting to crack, creates feelings of suspicion and violent impulses in the ‘guard’ but also a situation where she is radically reduced to a frail object to be protected. The submission to such prison was, at a certain level, comfortable for her, but it resulted in a relationship where her existence, as subject, is not affirmed (Psycho-note 2, psycho-note 3). Moreover, the spectator also feels that the direct way Ryo sexually approaches Sarasa echoes the abusive acts she suffered as a child by Takahiro’s lustful hands.
The narrative also explores the problematic field of sexuality. Sarasa, due to being subjected to sexual abuse, has developed an aversion to the sexual act – the bodily memory of Takahiro’s intrusion has made the field sexual pleasure inaccessible to her. Fumi, on the other hand, cannot engage in the sexual act with adult women due to his paedophilic fixation. In fact, this double sexual impossibility implies that what hinders subjects to meet the other’s Otherness is the dimension of desire.
With his exquisite composition, Sang-il Lee does not only offer the spectator a visual experience that is full of atmosphere but also delivers a slow-moving visual poem of facial and bodily movement and that what speaks through it. In fact, Sang-il Lee created a highly effective atmospheric background upon which the elegance as well as the communicative power of bodily movements and facial expressions can be powerfully and engagingly painted (Cine-note 1).
What allows Sang-il Lee’s composition to be full of visual poetic moments is the utmost care that went into framing the flow of bodily movement – a flow constantly impacted by the presence of others and the Other. While an emphasis on communicative cadence of corporeal motion could easily have led to melo-drama, Sang-il Lee ensures that these poetic moments retain their naturalness and that the subtle signified that leaks from these gestures remain sensible. The subtle shakiness that marks the framing of many interactions enhances the natural flow of the interactions, but also reverberates the growing tension that, by cracking the fantasy of a harmonious relationship, begins to muddle the exchange of signifiers and invites acts of ‘male’ violence.
The slow-moving rhythm of the composition, virtue of Sang-il Lee’s thoughtful reluctance to use the cut, and the reliance on static moments play an important role in letting the presence of the characters blossom on the screen, hereby allowing the natural flow of their interactions to engage the spectator. Sang-il Lee’s compositional approach is, of course, only so effective because the acting-performances are top-notch – Suzu Hirose, Tori Matsuzaka and Mikako Tabe pull the spectator and keep him, for the entire run-time, engaged as they weave a rich tapestry of genuine emotions.
That creating an atmospheric piece is important to Sang-il Lee is also evident in the care that went into the sound-design and the rich musical accompaniment (Cine-note 1). He does not infuse his scenes with atmospheric sounds (e.g wind, the water flowing from the tap, the gas-fire, crushing of coffee-beans, … etc.) that surround our characters, but also takes time to integrate fleeting visual moments that empower these natural sounds (e.g. the rushing of leaves, the swirling of the river). The music has, in this respect, a double function. While the pieces of music, of course, help the evocation of atmosphere, the flow of the music also enhances the poetic dimension of the composition, emphasizing the elegance of human as well as natural movement while also heightening the emotional impact of certain sequences.
Wandering succeeds in both visually pleasing the spectator and confronting him with the dangerous consequences of imaginary understanding. With his poetic sensitivity, Sang-il Lee delivers a rich tapestry of genuine emotionality and a powerful affirmation of the fact that the affirmation of the subject lies beyond the field of understanding. Sang-il Lee’s drama narrative is, without a doubt, one of the best Japanese films of this year.
Psycho-note 1: Sang-il Lee elegantly underlines that the end of Sarasa’s bond with Fumi by the Other’s separative act was traumatic. This act, which, of course, served the societal good, forced Sarasa back into a situation of neglect and sexual exploitation. Ironically, the triumph of the law helps re-installing Sarasa’s subjective tragedy.
Moreover, the pressure of the Other to corroborate its ‘truth’ did not only produce Sarasa’s failure to verbalize her subjective truth, but also caused a quantum of guilt to blossom within her as she could not safe Fumi from the Other’s hunger to punish him with her signifiers.
Narra-note 1: We do not need to answer the question whether Ryo wants to destroy Fumi and Sarasa or he tries to get her back to know that his violent lashing-out – i.e. leak everything to the media – aims at repairing his phallic injury.
Psycho-note 2: Ryo’s logic within the romantic field is determined by the childhood trauma of his mother refusing him. This traumatic act, by radically disturbing Ryo’s sense of feeling loved, does not only underpin his subjective choice for ‘broken’ girls, but also the repetitive installation of a prison of suffocating love and violent protection that effaces their subjectivity.
Girls need to be ‘broken’ and ‘frail’ because, only then, he can feed his fantasy of being their traditional ‘phallic guardian’, their ideal man. Any expression of subjectivity is, in Ryo’s logic, an attack on this fantasy and an anomaly that puts the feeling of feeling loved by her radically into question.
Ryo’s surges of violence have, in this sense, no other aim than to repair the romantic prison that supports his fantasy and reassure himself of the love of the other. Yet, his acts, born from the fear of not being enough phallus for the other, have the adverse effect.
Psycho-note 3: Spectators should also wonder about the repetition that marks Sarasa’s life. How come that the relational structure she finds herself stuck in resembles her past? What led her to install such traumatic repetition?
Cine-note 1: The visual pleasure of the narrative is ensured via a combination of elegant depth-of-field and natural colour- and lightning schemes.