Editor’s Pick – Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara | Runtime: 2h 27mins | Drama, Thriller | Language: Japanese

An Entomologist, in search of desert insects, graciously accepts a place to stay from some local villagers when he misses his last bus to Tokyo. When he gets there, he is forced into a giant sandpit where he’s held against his will with a local woman.

Do you remember the infamous lines of a cringe-worthy Anakin Skywalker as he babbles about sand, it’s “coarse, it’s rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere”? Well, Hiroshi Teshigahara manages to build an entire film about it, one that’s waves above anything you’d expect. As Entomologist Niki Jumpei finds himself held against his will in a large sandpit, his attempts at escaping are futile thanks to the continually sloping sand hills he is surrounding by, but it’s the small shreds of hope that make this a devilishly frustrating watch.

With a strange and almost unbelievable premise for a movie, what Teshigahara does is prove that being in control of the execution is imperative. Rather than ‘Man vs. Nature’ there is a deceptively layered story here, one that continually gives us an uneasy edge throughout. But the director finds comfort in the uncomfortable, every grain of sand is like a skin-crawling locust attached to the characters body, and for all of the exciting attempts at escape it’s the constant latch of the sand, shown in the most extreme of close-ups, that bring this to near torture.

In the pit with Jumpei is a nameless woman, who’s house is situated at the bottom of the pit buried almost fully, who’s job is to shovel sand daily and send it up to the people who captured Jumpei. She is a strange character, she’s neither against or with the main character, she has merely accepted this as her life, locked into the state of mind that there is nothing out there for her. Her fragility is where most of the dynamic between the two characters come from, as their relationship turns to a romantic one eventually. But romance is never really apparent, their physical encounters are that of desire rather than love, and the domestic dynamic comes from an old-fashioned need wives have to please the man. All of this adds to the unsettling feeling Woman in the Dunes is constantly giving us, every inch of the film’s story, characters and setting are mischievously wrapped in a disturbing layer.

From the sandy landscapes at the beginning, the aforementioned close ups and the scenes of intense desperation, each part is captured with meticulous detail.

Although the film’s mystique is slightly tarnished by a brief explanation as to why these mysterious villagers trick people into a lifetime of labour, by the time we get it, it seems trivial. The film challenges so much in it’s runtime that it doesn’t really matter. The need for escape, the lengths people will go to in times of desperation, and even the ethics of working culture are all touched upon. Sure the last one might be a stretch but there is reason to believe that the constant shovelling, just to wake up in a sand-less living space, challenges the ideas of living to work, and working to live. It’s small details like this that keep this concept from being stretched, as well some fantastic cinematography and a score that is crucial to the film’s overall impact.

From the sandy landscapes at the beginning, the aforementioned close ups and the scenes of intense desperation, each part is captured with meticulous detail. Unlike the thirst-quenching spectacle of something like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the genius here is the film’s ability to utilise it’s small spaces to effect and continually keep you hooked, as well as using it’s eery score to pace the film wonderfully. Even from the first shot we can feel the movie building in tension, and it’s something that consistently riffs until the very end.

With all the characteristics of a horror, Women in the Dunes rattles you to your core consistently, using it’s score and cinematography to give you a disturbing surface story, but finding depth in it’s characters actions to really give poignancy to each scene they have. In this period of time there is a slew of masterpieces to love from Japan, but this film should standout as one of the most unique you’ll see.

Verdict:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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