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The Riddle of Japan 

A new film by documentarian Trinh Minh-ha is timeless and apolitical -- much to our disappointment

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
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The Fourth Dimension, Trinh T. Minh-ha's new video essay built out of footage shot in Japan, resembles -- despite a good deal of chin-pulling philosophizing about time, space, and "the ever-increased speed of programmed agency" -- two other filmed essays largely about Japan made in the 1980s, Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (Sunless) and Wim Wenders' Tokyo-Ga. Marker and Wenders have made some great films, but their Japanese works bought into an exoticized myth of that country, throwing up images of an imaginary pure Japan from out of the past and contrasting those images with what the filmmakers argued is the high-tech, unnatural Japan of today. Trinh's film follows pretty much the same strategy. Handheld footage of Buddhist temples and traditional dancers is intercut with images of bullet trains, while the director murmurs imprecations against the few square yards of space train riders have, and how, like nature in Japan, "human nature itself is carefully choreographed and shaped."

Many of Trinh's comments are thought-provoking in their play with proverbs and paradoxes, but unlike her image of Japan -- which she calls "the home of the module unit, the first of the prefab lands" -- her film seems unshaped. Toward the end she launches into a digression about a young woman killed in the 1960 student demonstrations against a treaty with the U.S., but she never follows up on the thought. A little later she mentions Japan's poor treatment of its minority populations, but that point, too, gets dropped. The sudden references to politics seem like mandatory gestures, where they might have been at the core of a more penetrating look at Japan.

Instead Trinh devotes the great bulk of her film to the aforementioned touristy exoticism, while her soundtrack whispers comments such as "Nothing is natural, for the natural at its most natural is carefully hidden" and "Encounters inside Japan only make you aware of an outside Japan." Trinh, a UC Berkeley professor who has made some very good documentaries questioning Western images of Africa and Vietnam, has unaccountably adopted an essentialized, timeless, apolitical vision of Japan. In different ways, so have many Western fans of Japanese culture, who find in, say, Yasujiro Ozu's films the "real Japan" missing in "Westernized" filmmakers like Kurosawa. (Wenders' film was more or less in this vein.) But how is Kurosawa -- or, for that matter, the makers of violent action films or anime -- any less Japanese than Ozu? When Trinh speaks of "relentless pressures to conform" leading to Japan's "relentless drive for form" over shots of dancers in a parade, she may be generalizing as much about the Japanese as any ethnographer ever did with a Voice of God narration over shots of dancing African tribesmen.

As a film, The Fourth Dimension could be described the way Trinh defines ice: "time frozen in its movement." Although what she films is often attractive, Trinh reveals no special flair for composing images; still, the film includes at least one great shot, of a row of priests parading single file with their umbrellas through the rain. The film centers around Trinh's thoughts on "the fourth dimension" -- time. To Trinh, the Japanese are experts on "the art of framing time," and the corridors and passageways of traditional Japanese buildings form a wondrous visual metaphor for our human progression as we age. "Sliding open the screens, I find myself stepping suddenly into the fourth dimension," she tells us. "The journey unfolds, through the unseen but dominant framing of time." These speculations are quite intriguing, and the juxtaposition of Trinh's gnomic narration and her largely banal images of Japan would doubtless repay multiple viewings by sympathetic philosophers. But as a document on Japan The Fourth Dimension leaves much to be desired. Like travelers on bullet trains, viewers of this film become encapsulated in her notions, moving in an unchanging space across the changing landscape. "To perform a ritual one must slow down," we are told. But must the Japanese always be found performing rituals?

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Gregg Rickman

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