Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Woman in the Dunes(1964):the sand is coming

Director:Hiroshi Teshigahara(1927-2001);  Language: Japanese;( Suna no onna); the film is highly commended by the director Andrei Tarkovsky and by Roger Ebert.

Two comparisons immediately spring to mind. One is with Albert Camus'  famous essay "Myth of Sisyphus" (depicting a human being doomed to a life of endless, purposeless activity, as many of us may experience our own lives to be). The second is with David Lean's 1962 film, "Lawrence of Arabia" for the grandeur of it's desert photography. Perhaps it's more appropriately described as the story of the redemption of an entymologist.

The young amateur scientist, otherwise a teacher, is out on the sea shore spending his leave looking for a variety of beetle which will bring him recognition from the community. By a chain of circumstances he finds himself housed with a young and beautiful woman living in a dilapidated cottage. The cottage is at the bottom of a sandpit abou 10 metres deep. Having accepted hospitality for an overnight stay, he finds himself a prisoner. Provisions and water are periodically lowered by the neighbouring villagers. It dawns on him soon that here he is to remain indefinitely.

The husband and daughter of the woman have recently been buried in a sand storm. It is a strange kind of sand. It is moist and whatever it comes into contact with will decay in days. At night they work together to shovel it as well as sift it for sale by the villagers. The cottage has to be protected at any cost since if one falls, so will the others.

He makes some attempts to scale the modest height of the sandpit ( since he is desperate to return to the city) but the material is as crumbly and amorphous as an anthill and there is no possibility of scaling the wall. At one point he does manage to escape by means of an ingenious contraption but  is caught by his detainers and back where he started. He tries to trap a crow to act a carrier pigeon but this also doesn't work out.

But it is the sand which is most interesting. Throughout the film the howling and blowing sand storm forms the musical score with a minimal of additional notes. It is a sand which flows like a liquid, advancing like a river in spate, at times heaving and swelling like the surface of a sea. It rains sand through the cracks in the roof of the cottage. The nights are devoted to bailing out the encroaching onslaught of sand.

The couple roughs out the physical realities of this survival struggle, bound only by the common elemental enemy and powerful eroticism. The woman is reconciled to remaining there for the rest of her life.  He remains steadfastly desperate, at one point even willing to perform sex in full view of the villagers as a price to be allowed to see the ocean for a short while. Let us go no furthur with spoilers.

Interpretations? The terms avant-garde, neo-relistic, existential have been used for the film, whatever that might be. Interpretations must be tentative and provisional, because anything which can be interpreted must to that extent be limited.

It has the form of a parable, in the starkness and simplicity of the narrative and disregard for logic of details. Man against the power of chaos, the relentless advance of time, the chasm beyond? The storms are the storms of human passion and the quicksand which gives way below our very feet is our own absence of moorings.

The entomologist wanted his name in a book, fame and recognition--a return to the glittering city. He is willing to trade whatever sense of honor he posesses (though he starts off as a decent enough individual) in return for fulfilling his desire for life, glimpses of the outside world. The woman is on firmer soil, reconciled to her destiny of eternal, repetitive, thankless labour. The villagers in their masks are the inner demons.

Like Watanabe in Ikiru, he finds a foothold in the ever shifting sand.


Anonymous said...

What interpretation do you most subscribe to?

S. M. Rana said...

@ Ronak M Soni

Thank you for visiting.
Any authentic work of literature or cinema is an organic whole and born out of an inner vision of the creator. As such there can be no rigid interpretation(the word itself rings false), or there can be a variety of interpretations. What is aimed at is the resonance between the minds of the artist and his audience.

A little below I've used a quote from the director in my essay on Tarkovsky's Stalker, wherein he makes an almost similar statement.

To give another example the "interpretation" of Shakespearean drama is a well populated area of heated and enthusiastic debate four centories after theie origin.

But still, not to seem to be evading your question, I think the movie is about us, about our own lives, the reality and gravity of life's challenges, contradictions and mystery, and our desperate struggle to confront them.

Ofcourse there is no x+y+z kind of explanation.

All the best in your studies.

Anonymous said...


Actually, I got 'no x+y+z explanation' in your essay. Thanks for the lengthy re-explanation anyway. I have a favourite quote to that effect, from J. M. Coetzee: “If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?”
I only asked because most of the time something seems particularly right to a person and I was wondering what that was for you.

S. M. Rana said...

You ask great questions.
What seemed particularly right? A nice expression. The overpowering sand, as a description of the nature of life. And the light at the end of the tunnel (I with-held the end of the film, in case some one intends to see it). It reminded me of another great Japanese film-Ikiru, in which a man is faced with a terminal illness.

Literary Dreamer said...

Looks like I need to start compiling a list. First Tarkovsky and "Stalker," now "Woman in the Dunes."

S M Rana said...

@Literary Dreamer
Well, one thing leads to another. I saw Solaris becuse von Trier dedicated Antichrist to Tarkovsky. And when I read about Tarkovsky, it turned out Woman in the Dunes was a favourite of his. I would have left Tarkovsky with Solaris but then Vivek suggests Stalker. Looks like I'm going to do Tarkovsky lock, stock,barrel.