TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Great Absence is a quiet creature, never clamoring, never rushing, but always observant and always aware. Co-writer-director Kei Chika-ura’s second feature is deeply nestled within the prism-like realm of familial emotions. His perspective is interested in how memories, both loving and painful, refract across time, often to a profound degree. One can feel the inquiry of his mind in every frame, always considering, always scratching for a hidden revelation. It is in this pursuit that the drama uncovers much hardship but also much beauty.
A crucial reason why the film takes on such an intimate demeanor lies in its semi-autobiographical nature. Chika-ura’s experience watching his father battle dementia is the beating heart of the feature, which he co-wrote with Keita Kumano. Likewise, the movie follows Takashi (Mirai Moriyama), an aloof, middle-aged actor living in Tokyo who must depart for northern Kyushi after receiving word that his estranged father, Yohji (Tatsuya Fuji), has been hospitalized. Upon arrival, Takashi realizes that his father is succumbing to dementia and must make peace with the man who abandoned him decades earlier.
“…Takashi realizes that his father is succumbing to dementia and must make peace with the man who abandoned him…”
Foremost, Chika-ura renders Great Absence with superb clarity, not unlike a lucid thought. The filmmaker marries ethereal cinematography with the immaculate 35mm format. But it is in these contemplative frames that the cast comes alive. Moriyami’s a perfectly reticent modern man who subtly relearns the value of fatherhood and tradition. But even more, the legendary Fuji gives a stunning portrayal of a father whose pride is dissolved by dementia. There always exists a tiny dread when witnessing his struggle, but there also exists a nascent joy to see father and son converse, even with feigned familiarity. Together, both actors are nothing short of riveting.
The film is framed as a mystery, Takashi is often rebuilding the story’s events as much as he is re-examining his forgotten past. There is much time for both the characters and the audience to reflect. Too much time, unfortunately. The one glaring weakness is its daunting runtime. At more than two and a half hours, the film loses momentum due to its inordinate scope. By the second act, the movie becomes a daze. In wanting to be true to his experiences, the director has dispensed with the necessity of editing. Though admirably comprehensive, many of the little details are unnecessary, as one naturally intuits them without delineation. As such, the whimsical nature buckles under the weight of what often feels like an interminable length.
Still, when Great Absence finally does reach its conclusion, it’s hard not to favor its beauty rather than its burden. Indeed, the film is an exquisite journey, wonderfully acted, sublimely shot, and thoughtfully conceived. Chika-ura has created a thematically rich piece with very little of the usual fanfare. It is a tribute to his skill as a director but also to the power of everyday emotion. Even more, it is a testament that any emotion, painful or otherwise, can be harnessed for the better.
Great Absence screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…a thematically rich piece with very little of the usual fanfare."