A quiet, thoughtful film – not quite a romance, though its central couple eventually get together, but a meditation on self-image, representation, modern isolation and the low-risk ruts it’s too easy to fall into. It’s also the second film this year to include nature documentary footage of animal behaviours so often used in metaphor that they’ve become commonplace but startling (and upsetting) to see in its literal form – Vivarium showed how cuckoos take over nests and this features the mating habits of praying mantises.
Kai (Hideki Nagai), a hangdog but well-dressed man in early middle age, never speaks (though he doesn’t seem to be mute) and runs a tiny photo studio he has inherited. He won a student prize for nature photography decades ago and is fascinated by insects, but the bulk of his business is retouching customers’ photographs, scratching away with a mouse-pen (the sound is insistent and distinctive) to reshape their likeness according to their own ideal conceptions of themselves. A repeat customer is a young woman refining the photo she uses on a dating site – though, later, he’s asked to use his magic to show the woman a dead child might have grown to become, making for an affecting development.
In the woods, Kai comes across Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki), an instagrammer/influencer who has just fallen out of a tree while attempting to pose for her daily inspirational image – and sustained superficial wounds on her chest and cheek, which Kai winds up eliminating from the photo that goes live. Neither character has much of a life outside photographs – it’s a nice irony that Kai seems to have one actual friend, but a woman who lives by the number of followers, likes and personal messages has no human connections at all and (for reasons unexplained) nowhere to live. Kyoko moves into Kai’s tiny home and reshapes his life as he reshapes her images, though dwindling popularity more than any great insight prompts her to forego retouching and present her temporarily marred form online, getting a reaction which might tip her dangerously into staying injured to keep relevant (at one point, she literally picks at scabs).
There’s always an inherent creepiness to shy repressed older guy/troubled lively young woman relationships in film (Variety once called this the ‘geezer and gidget’ genre) but Woman of the Photographs has such a strange, pared-down approach (the city is virtually empty) and the performances are so delicate that it gets over that particular hump, with the story going in different directions. Given its placing in FrightFest, the film also has an interesting tension – it’s sweet and sad and you invest in the characters, but the knowledge that it’s been programmed alongside, say, Redwood Massacre Annihilation and Baby Sitter Must Die, suggests that it’s going into a darker place, with a few hints of ghostliness (the odd image repurposed from Kwaidan) and that ominous insect theme (the film is a conscious echo of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Suna no onna/Woman of the Dunes). What writter-director Takeshi Kushida actually does in the last act is more surprising and affecting than that. Weirdly but warmly recommended.