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Woman in the Dunes

#520 - Woman in the Dunes
Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964

A teacher goes on holiday to the beach and ends up being stranded in a ramshackle house.

I had generally liked The Face of Another and its unorthodox take on science-fiction, so of course I had some high expectations for viewing the film that seems to be widely considered Teshigahara's masterpiece, Woman in the Dunes. I managed to go in while knowing very little about it - it marked another collaboration with The Face of Another scribe Kobo Abe, was about two-and-a-half hours long, and was apparently about a woman...and some dunes. As a result, I'm not sure if I want to go into too much detail about the plot because it was genuinely such a consistently surprising film throughout its considerable running time. It's interesting considering the seemingly superficial premise - namely, that of a city-dwelling teacher (Eiji Okada) who is on leave and visiting a remote beach area to work on his bug-catching hobby. When he ends up missing the last bus of the day, the locals encourage him to bed down in a small hut that is occupied by a solitary woman (Kyoko Kishida) and is also surrounded on all sides by extremely steep dunes. Okada thinks nothing of this at first, but soon realises that he is effectively trapped in this sand pit and made to live and work alongside the woman in order to provide his captors with sand for an illegal cement-mixing operation. Of course, he plans to escape, but complications soon arise...

Due to not having gotten much sleep the night before, I frequently found myself in danger of falling asleep during Woman in the Dunes. This is not supposed to be a dig against the film, but you should definitely be prepared for a film that does take its time to expand upon its fairly simple premise. The external action naturally involves Okada trying to escape his situation by any means necessary, and while those sequences are fairly suspenseful to watch they don't exactly feel like the main focus of the film. Instead, the film focuses on not just his uneasy relationship to Kishida (who is morosely accepting of this incredibly cruel situation) but also how this bizarre imprisonment starts to warp him as more and more time wears on. The film-making style is subdued yet effective, with what little music there is being appropriately tense and atonal and the cinematography working to capture detail and nuance than vibrancy and flair. That being said, I did find it distracting how the area surrounding the house is framed in such a way that you could not actually see the other side of the area and initially made me wonder why Okada couldn't just swim away or try scaling the other side of the pit. That's a minor nit-pick within the greater context of this film (if not a subtle metaphor of its own that suggests a serious short-sightedness on Okada's part) as Woman in the Dunes crafts a reasonably compelling tale of imprisonment and the associated psychological trauma. Long stretches of introspection and solemn dialogues are punctuated by escape attempts and the occasional external development. Doesn't quite live up to the impossibly high reputation that it has, but it's still very good.