Time Out - 100 to watch
IMDB’s rate: 8.5 by 13,000 voters which puts it in the Top 50 films (but which is not reflected in the Top 250 List)
A Few Observations by Philip Powers, 8 March 2018
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A man is forced to share his existence with a woman who lives in a house in a hole in a desert.
It was a far darker film than I had anticipated but as with all the films I've been watching I knew nothing about it before seeing it - so didn't know what to anticipate - other than the fact that it was in Time Out’s 100 to watch and not on any other list I’ve seen. The fact that it was directed by a Japanese director - who wasn’t Ozu, Kurosawa, Kitano or Mizoguchi - who I’d never heard: Hiroshi Teshigahara, was also enticing.
I've seen quite a few films from the early 1960s from Japan and Germany, Sweden and Italy in the last few months and this was easily one of the most disturbing. It's ahead of its time in dealing with issues that weren't as well-documented, if at all, as they are today.
Solitary confinement, Stockholm syndrome, torture, the psychological impact of being imprisoned for a long period of time, slave labour, kidnapping, the inability to conceive after a long period of incarceration of how to live if freed: all important themes.
The final moments of the film illustrate this superbly when the man prefers to stay imprisoned than go back out into a world where everything is uncertain. The man who can see for himself a possibility of fame, an endorsement of his existence, giving value to his life - if he can identify a rare or previously unknown type of insect, his name noted in history's pages if he can only discover species X - is juxtaposed with a woman who has no hope of any recognition for her existence or for anything she did while she was alive. As long as she digs sand, those who have imprisoned her will allow her to live with weekly rations. In fact, her imprisonment is fundamental to the villagers' income, as she mines sand for them which has too much salt in it to be properly allowed for use in building. The villagers sell this low quality sand at a quarter the normal price on the black market.
One of the great ironies - shown throughout history - of jailing people for their crimes, is the errant expectation that prison is so terrible that they will upon release live a crime-free life because they don't want to get thrown back into prison. There's an amount of time living in jail - a not very well-defined period in research - where that stops working as a disincentive, where it becomes a 'norm', resulting in prisoners who find it more comforting to be imprisoned than to be free.
Then there are people who are kidnapped off the street and forced into slave labour and there's nothing they can do about it. And there are people who give up their freedom so they can go to another country - which they think will result in their new freedom - who perform as sex slaves or strippers or prostitutes, who never get to experience their side of the agreement. They’re held illegally, by brute force, dreading the fear of personal violence upon their body.
One of the most awful parts of the film is where the man and the woman fight and tear at each other because one thinks this will make a difference to the totality of his incarceration. The woman tries to tell him that they are just being exploited again. She didn’t know the deal he’d made but there was never any real hope of being given time each day - just half an hour or an hour - to sit and look at the sea. The terrible understanding of this moment, that they are human beings in a pit on display for the people who are corrupt, powerful and free, is awful. The mob, the Yakuza, the Mafia, the gangs or any organized crime equivalent, looks down upon them, in their existence in the pit, as if they’re insects. In this situation the man who is offered the hope of a false promise is unable to realise that it is false because he, up to that point, still has a spark of hope living within his spirit. The woman, who has no hope left within her being, knows that it is a trick but the man dreams he can get to see the sea for a few minutes every day.
The woman has been stuck in her pit by these villagers, in her ever-sinking house, forcing her to work for them so that she can dig out the sand around her house every day and stop it caving in. There's a perfect balance between the oppressors and the predicament they've given the woman where she has to dig out sand to stop her home collapsing. To survive from week to week she has to work for them as they dictate. They have instigated the instinct of doing anything that is required to survive. They have set-off the instinct of fight or flight, but they've taken away the possibility of flight by imprisoning her in a hole in the sand dunes. So that leaves just one option - fight. The instinct to stay alive. That means to keep digging beyond when reason can make any sense of what she’s doing every day to survive.
In Stockholm syndrome there is an variation of that experience which isn't about falling in love with your captors but is about forming an understanding where if I do this for you, then you will do this for me. It could be a favour which allows the person to live every subsequent day or it could be a job which allows the person to live to see any day after now. It could be like slaves building cities for rulers or sex-slaves doing the sexual acts that are required.
Like Shunpu den [The Story of a Prostitute - released a year later] (1965) it could be that you're a prostitute servicing hundreds of soldiers every week because that is what you need to do to survive. As the sand pours into the woman's house in Woman in the Dunes I couldn't help but feel that every grain of sand that came her way required a service that she had no alternative than to accept. Sometimes for prostitutes the men are as endless as the grains of sand in the desert despite the close proximity of something which could enable escape. When escape is cut off, over and over and over, a being understandably loses the drive to manufacture the things that would enable it.
The woman has no doubt previously asked the villagers for something to help her keep going just like the man asked to see the sea for 30-minutes a day. It's reasonable to assume that she was at breaking point and asked for some help or assistance or for someone to bear the pain with her, or someone to satisfy her sexual longing. The villagers then kidnapped the man and imprisoned him with her to keep their valuable worker digging for them.
The villagers are pimps and like most pimps they have more than one prostitute. The unsettling implication is that they have more than one woman in the dunes living in a hole in the ground, working for them just to survive from week to week. They probably have dozens or hundreds or thousands of individuals digging out sand for them in exactly the same situation. That’s how it works in organised crime and it is clear that these villains are organised. Then, when the victims give up caring about escape, they work mindlessly – like this poor woman - just to survive.
Then, when they stop caring about surviving, they will eventually accept the end of their own life as a relief from their suffering because history shows that the inbuilt survival instinct will dwindle and eventually die. Then the oppressors will toss the body away like it’s garbage, kidnap another person, enslave them, and it all starts over again.
A fair question for why I see it as a metaphor for sexual slavery is explained for me by the extraordinary scene where the man makes his last attempt to have some degree of freedom. He asked for 30-minutes to look at the sea and they offer him 60-minutes if he will have sex with the woman in front of the villagers as an audience. The Toru Takemitsu score which has previously been full of sighs and wailing, now becomes heavy and insistent in this extraordinary musical underscoring using Taiko drumming, utilising many difference sizes, including the deeper sounding, more body-shaking, drums. This is the scene that is the heart of the film and points to the most important thing the audience is directed to understand. This is a savage abuse and a violent disrespect for human life and when sexual beings are deprived of sex it is a form of psychological torture.