Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Admiration: Rinko Kikuchi in Babel

Tonight I re-watched Babel on a whim.  I haven't seen the film since my initial viewing in the Fall of 2006, when the film was released.  I remember enjoying it very much (as my 5 star review on Netflix indicates) but since it's been so long I felt it was in dire need of re-assessment.  The second time around I enjoyed it just as much if not more than the first time, and I still feel like it's an incredible effort all around.  What stood out for me the most this time, though, was the plotline revolving around Rinko Kikuchi's Chieko.

For those unfamiliar with the film, it's typical Arriaga/Inarittu in the sense that it involves multiple plots that all string together by the end of the film.  Keeping in line with the reference of the title, all of the plotlines involve mis-communications of some sort.  Chieko (Kikuchi) is a deaf-mute girl living in Tokyo who is in desperate need of human contact.  She is looking more specifically for intimacy with a man.  Most men, however, balk at the realization that she is deaf-mute.  That is her plot in a nutshell, but obviously it grows much more complicated than there.  And these complications don't just come from the screenplay but from Kikuchi's incredible performance.  Whilst most of the cast resorts to histrionics to give their big emotional moments impact, Kikuchi can't due to Chieko's disabilities.  This gives Kikuchi opportunities to explore the character in a way nobody else in the film does.  It gives Chieko a roundness and depth that is mesmerizing.  Every time the film would get away from her plotline, I couldn't wait for it to round on back.

There's one scene in particular where Chieko meets up with her friends in a plaza and they drink and take some ecstasy from some cute Japanese boys there.  Chieko falls for one of the boys, and the next 10 minutes features a montage of her being high and developing a relationship with this boy (who is the cousin of a deaf friend and therefore understands some sign-language and isn't scared by her disability).  It's an ethereal montage cinematographically-speaking but it also provides some moments of insight into Chieko's wonderment at the feeling ecstasy gives her, and the elation this boy's attention brings her.  It ends on a low note unfortunately, and provides the emotional heft of the end of her story.  It's Kikuchi's performance which elevates this part of the film and every other scene she's in.

Kikuchi is a magnetic presence, and entirely deserving of her Oscar nomination from 2007 for Babel.  After viewing the film I was questioning Jennifer Hudson's win that year for Dreamgirls and thinking that perhaps Kikuchi's performance really was the best of the five...and I love J-Hud in Dreamgirls.  Yet Chieko seems much more of a challenge than Effie, and Kikuchi really sticks her landing.  I've found Kikuchi's work since then (another mute performance in The Brother's Bloom and a lead in the upcoming Murakami adaptation Norweigan Wood) to be great work, but it's Babel which really showcases her immense abilities.  If her English was great and her American accent perfected we could be looking at a Marion Cotillard-type breakout star.  It's just sad that it hasn't happened yet.

Keeping my fingers crossed!

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