Our House, the thesis film by Tokyo University of the Arts graduate Yui Kiyohara, is possibly the most narratively radical fiction film playing at Berlinale this year and for the most part it succeeds. Arguably the main character is the house in which the film's two stories unfold: a creaking wooden house that looks like it's about to topple over in a small Japanese coast town. Here, we witness a daughter jealous about her mother's new boyfriend, and a mysterious woman who takes in an amnesiac she found asleep and alone on a ferry. Kiyohara's way of structuring the narrative means that the two stories and timelines never overlap. Instead, we simply have two stories set in the same place and time that are completely separate. As strategy as simple as it is daring.
Kiyohara's intention is not so much to compel through narrative but to open up the possibility that our reality is not singular and comment on the fragility of memory in perception. Yet through the hint of ghosts, menace and the uncertainty of perspective in the film she creates a haunting tone similar to David Lynch. Moments where the two stories in the same house interact are slight but do occur: the teenage girl pokes a hole in her bedroom wall that the amnesiac later looks through, and the teenage girl throws a vase that hits an attacker who is bearing down on the young woman and the amnesiac. Some of the plot developments are contrived, for instance the eventual attacker goes from being awkwardly gentle, describing a woman as the space between stars, before suddenly turning into a sexually violent presence. However, Kiyohara is more concerned with images and mood than story and this is reflected in our interest in the film. When the teenage daughter cycles a plastic Christmas tree to the beach, plugs it into the sand and lies in the warmth of the tree lights, it is mysterious and entrancing. Although opaque, it's still relatable. Kiyohara also excellently uses handheld in this sequence, which creates a strong effect of freedom as the majority of the film is shot on a tripod. This should serve as a reminder to independent filmmakers that if handheld cinematography becomes the default its narrative possibilities are weakened.
As a first-time filmmaker, Kiyohara already has a mastery of timing within the frame that is an antidote to fast-cutting Hollywood storytelling techniques and ponderous arthouse imitations alike. Her main influence for Our House was Bach's fugues, which she wanted to transpose into film to create, in her words, a new way of seeing film. Likewise, she never wanted the two stories to effect each other because that is a temptation to make the film generic and not new. This ambition may sound like hubris, or pretension, but it results in a work that is as uncompromising and original as it can be bewildering.
~ Theo Macdonald