" What about Marty? "
— Kristen Connolly, The Cabin in the Woods

MRQE Top Critic

A Mighty Heart

In A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie finally proves her Oscar win wasn't a fluke —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Noriko’s Dinner Table has a mind-blowing scene at its climax. I’d say that the actors pulled it off brilliantly, although at that point, their characters, such as they are, are emotionally broken by the stress. It’s just as well, because by then director Sion Sono has got the audience thinking so deeply about identity that what happens on screen is no longer terribly important.

The big scene requires the whole duration of the movie as a setup. In that light, Noriko’s Dinner Table, at 2 1/2 hours, is just the right length, and the payoff is that much more satisfying for having taken such a long, tortuous path to get here.

Identity Crisis

Everything's normal until the identity crisis sets in
Everything’s normal until the identity crisis sets in

Based on a novel written as a sequel to Sion Sono’s previous film Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table is set in modern-day Japan, around a normal family. There’s a hint of good-natured fantasy about the family, a la Amelie or Babe. The father works for a small-town newspaper that revels in puff pieces and stories about local heroes. He writes about deer eating the local harvest, the new books at the local library, and the lack of clouds in the sky on a given afternoon. His teenaged children think he’s a dork, naturally. All of the main characters are well drawn.

The movie has a reassuring, placid soundtrack. There’s always a narrator speaking intimately, but different characters narrate different scenes. The narration is first-person, but that “I” passes from character to character. A simple, pretty waltz, played by a small, intimate combo, plays throughout.

That gentleness in the soundtrack is a soothing guide to some of the film’s potentially disturbing themes. One of the plot points involves a mass suicide in another city, and some of the secondary characters have a very stoic attitude towards death. There is even some blood in the film, although not nearly as much as the (unfortunately chosen) image on the box would have you believe. The intense emotion in the bloodiest scene has nothing to do with violence or death.

(Spoiler ahead in this paragraph; proceed at your own risk.) The big climax involves a woman who has taken on a new identity, that of an actor. She is occasionally a good actor, but she really has to lose herself in the role to be convincing. When the performance is done, it’s hard for her to come out of character. Through the devious machinations of another person, she is hired to play the role of the person she used to be before she took on her new identity. Her quadruple-layered performance is the climax of the film.

C’est La Marketing

I haven’t seen Suicide Club, but it seems to have attracted the J-horror audience. And so the packaging to Noriko’s Dinner Table prominently features a big spatter of blood to draw in those fans. Although there are some scenes with blood (plus a couple of gratuitous splashes), none of the gore seems particularly essential to the appeal of Noriko’s Dinner Table.

In a perfect world, horror fans would stick around to appreciate the reflexive drama, and then go rent Bergman’s Persona or a fistful of Buñuel. Art cinema fans would be undaunted by the cover and watch the film because they read a review that compared it to Bergman and Buñuel.

Unfortunately, the misleading cover may end up disappointing those who pick it up looking for blood, and turning away those who could appreciate it. As proof that horror fans will miss the point, watch the interview with director Sion Sono on the DVD Extras. Most of the questions are about his previous film, and not a single question asks about the question of identity.

C’est la marketing.

Recommendation

I’ve seen Noriko’s Dinner Table twice now, looking for the right way to describe it, recommend it, and convey just how groundbreaking that big scene is. I haven’t done the film justice. Nevertheless, here’s hoping the review sparks some interesting dialogue, and that the marketing team works a little harder next time.