Woman in the Dunes
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Hiroshi Teshigahara's powerful masterpiece follows an amateur biologist who escapes the bustle of the city by studying beetles in remote sand dunes. After missing the last bus, he accepts a villager's offer to spend the night in a widow's shack at the bottom of a deep sand pit. In the morning he finds he is trapped. At first enraged, the man's hatred for the woman soon turns to searing, erotic lust. In Japanese with English subtitles.
In addition to being a celebrated milestone of Japanese cinema, Woman in the Dunes is surely one of the most sensual films ever made--not in the purely erotic sense (although eroticism is certainly a potent element), but as a work of pure cinema, in which cinematography and nature combine as powerful forces of artistic expression, melded with a timeless parable of the human condition. Dialogue is sparse and precise, submitting to dreamlike atmosphere and imagery that is genuinely universal; this is the cinematic equivalent of a prehistoric cave drawing, telling a story for all humankind.
Woeful of the trappings of civilization, a young entomologist enjoys solitary fieldwork among the dunes of an oceanside village. Missing his bus to Tokyo, he accepts an invitation to stay in the home of a young widow, whose hut lies at the bottom of an ominous sand pit. He soon realizes that he has been trapped, and that his new role as surrogate husband--helping with the Sisyphean task of shoveling the daily torrent of windblown sand--has been forced on him by a mysterious conspiracy of villagers, who supply provisions from above via rope and pulley. As time passes, the man's initial fury gives way to gradual acceptance, until life in the sand pit seems preferable to attempted escape.
Hiroshi Teshigahara was a 37-year-old novice when he made this film, which received Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. Intimately observing the emotional arc of his characters, Teshigahara incorporates sex, desperation, ingenuity, suffering, pleasure, and much more into this hypnotic visual experience (accompanied by Toru Takemitsu's masterful score), in which sand becomes the third and most dominant character. With images and sequences that are hauntingly and unforgettably evocative, Woman in the Dunes remains a truly extraordinary work of cinematic art. --Jeff Shannon
- Restored From the Original Negative With New Subtitles
- Original Japanese Theatrical Trailer
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The basic plot is of a businessman from Tokyo visiting sand dunes to pursue his hobby of collecting insects and getting imprisoned in a sand pit with a widowed village woman. Ironically by rural Japanese standards she at thirty-something is an "old" woman but definitely attractive. The main story starts with a polite dinner with the widow. Nevertheless the initial attraction he would feel towards her is subsumed by the governing situation that he is there just for one night after being stranded in the area.
Next morning he discovers that the villagers have tricked him into staying in the sand pit where he cannot escape because they control the rope ladder from above which is his only means of exit. He now must help her mine the sand which the villagers collect by a pulley and then sell. The situation changes completely as he is enraged at her for being in on the trap but she had as little control as he did.
Eventually he realizes that he cannot escape and starts feeling an attraction for her. She is a simple country woman without any makeup but with a pretty face and pretty eyes. It soon turns out that she seems more interested in sex and the inevitable happens. This of course gives them relief from their situation since she is trapped by the villagers just as much as he is.
Later he starts to realize that he likes this life more than his bureaucratic job in Tokyo. It has more meaning because he is constantly challenged with surviving in a bleak environment.
The only problems I have with this film are the many close up shots of things like sand grains and insects. These are suddenly pictured without zooming in and I would edit them out. Also there is a scene where the villagers suddenly appear in weird masks and costumes. It seems that this is some sort of surreal scene but it probably resulted from one of those medieval ceremonies that the Japanese were re-enacting and then suddenly showed up at the pit.
A number of reviewers have gone out of their way to show their political correctness by portraying the film as some form of unwarranted male dominance. But this story is no different than the age-old story of a man who is seduced and trapped by a woman. The difference here is that the sand dune makes it all happen. There is also the theme that a man trapping insects ends up being trapped himself. But the main story here is the relationship with the woman.
Just the scenes of the male character trying to climb free of the sand pit are worth viewing as another metaphor for self-centered need trying to reach an unattainable goal, finding meaning somewhere that repudiates understanding itself. Taking a makeshift grappling hook and trying to break free has to have some similarity to trying to complete a graduate degree, over and over he tries to pull himself toward some point free of the mundane, stultifying sand. But he finally grows to accept having disappeared somewhere where there's not anything more to do than to shovel falling sand night after endless night; acceptance of something in phenomenology/existentialism called "facticity" seems to finally make the predicament more understandable, there's a continuity that becomes more meaningful than the pursuit of a superficial knowledge that he'd had before. Life becomes more involved for somebody who'd actually only had to play everything merely by the numbers before, so the continuity of life had finally re-shaped a character that had only been hovering over it.
A memorable movie, worth viewing over and over.