Movie Review – The Shell Collector (JAPAN CUTS 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautiful yet unfulfilling experience.

REVIEW: Art-house films are such an enigma within film-making and alongside other forms of art, it is rightfully so. Obviously not for mainstream audiences, I personally believe an art-house film still has to adhere to a perfect balance of these two traits in order to succeed: a human element and the power of suggestion. Films from directors like David Lynch, Terrence Malick and others are prime examples. As for myself, I am not a knowledgeable person about such a genre, but I do have an open mind of such films and when I heard about The Shell Collector, I was cautiously ecstatic. The talented cast and the beautiful trailer certainly sealed the deal. But does the film deliver a memorable experience or will it drown in a sea of meaningless drivel?

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Lily Franky stars as the nameless blind professor who lives on a small remote island in Okinawa. He has separated his life from his wife and activist son (Sosuke Ikematsu) and has dedicated himself to the field of conchology, due to its wondrous mystery and beauty. Until one day, a woman is swept up to the shore and the blind professor rescues her to his care. She is revealed to be Izumi (Shinobu Terajima), a painted who is suffering from some sort of paralytic disease which disables her from painting. Despite the professor’s reluctance of having company, the two get to know one another but she is suddenly struck by a poisonous sting from one of the shells that the blind professor was nursing. But somehow, Izumi not only survives, but she is also cured of her affliction. Word spreads about the miraculous shell to the point that it threatens the peaceful civility of the professor’s life with potentially tragic results.

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First things first, this will be a short review considering the short running time (87 minutes) but if there is one thing that will stick with you about The Shell Collector, it is the breathtaking cinematography by Akiko Ashizawa. The compositions of the island, the professor’s dwelling and especially the underwater scenes are so magnificently well-realized, it completely immerses the audience like a cool gust of wind at a beach during low tide. And director Tsubota certainly delivers on the metaphors, particularly one involving Franky’s character sitting on a lawnchair in the ocean floor. The musical score by Billy Martin (not the baseball player) is melodic and complimentary to the film’s tone, but never overused to the point of being cloying.

As for the performances, all the actors give variable performances with the material they are given but the stand-out is Lily Franky, who compliments the film with his subtle, yet compelling performance. Shinobu Terajima is a bit too overstated as Izumi, especially when her character is cured of her affliction. It may make sense of the character development, but her performance could have been better handled. Sosuke Ikematsu doesn’t really make much of an impression as the son of Franky’s character, but the script doesn’t really help him much to the point that it makes his character seem like a spoilt child, rather than the vocal activist he was meant to portray. And since his performance doesn’t work, the contrast between him and the tranquility of Franky’s professor doesn’t work out as effectively as it should. Ai Hashimoto doesn’t even have much dialogue to speak of, although her presence within the film is quite effective and her monologue in the final act does have an impact.

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Despite the production values and Franky’s performance, there isn’t really much to speak of in terms of its thematic impact. While there are some disturbing visual metaphors (like and images i.e. a painting that Izumi paints on the professor’s wall, but they don’t offer much food-for-thought beyond the simple messages of “coming out of your shell” and “don’t mess with nature”. And since the relationship between Franky’s character and Ikematu’s character doesn’t work, the contrast of their relationship and the relationship between man and nature and how they correlate doesn’t make enough of an impact for the audience to really care as neither the character arcs.

So with the underdeveloped script, the lack of thematic material, the slow pace, the hypnotic images/music and the understated performances does not add up to much other than a visual and aural experience that may put people to sleep. I wanted to like this film but it just couldn’t gather enough to keep me involved. The film is like a mixed bag with some shells of greatness but most of the shells are tarnished.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Astoundingly beautiful cinematography

Lily Franky’s performance

Complimentary musical score

CONS

Underdeveloped script and characters

Lack of compelling thematic material

The performances are a mixed bag

SCORE: 5/10

Cast: Lily Franky, Shinobu Terajima, Sosuke Ikematsu, Ai Hashimoto, Akira Fukuhara, Masahiro Aragaki
Director: Yoshifumi Tsubota
Screenwriters: Kaori Sawai, Yoshifumi Tsubota, based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Doerr

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