A Movie In Which Not Much Happens

Over in Sunday!, Jaybird complains that the longform trailer for the low budget horror movie Don’t Breathe gives away the twist ending. He favorably cites young adult favorite R.L. Stein’s observation that every story has three parts “The begging, the middle, and the twist.” I don’t think this is true and when I think about the best movie I saw this year, I wonder if it even has a story by American conventions of the word at all.

Kore’eda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister came to arthouses across the United States this summer. The movie was released in Japan in 2015 and based on a manga series titled “Seasidetown Diary.” The manga has been running in Japan since 2007.

The plot of the movie is simple. Three sisters at various stages in their twenties live in a big, old house in lower-middle class seaside town. The kind of place known for commercial fishing, not tourism and beaches. The sisters were abandoned by their kind but ineffectual father when they were young. Their equally ineffectual mother left a year or two after that. The sisters have settled into a bunch of dead-end jobs or jobs that involve the dying. The eldest and most serious works on the Hospice floor of the local hospital as a nurse. The middle sister works at a bank and helps restructure the debt loads for struggling businesses. The youngest works at a small sporting good store that seemingly has two employees, herself and her former mountain climber boss.

The sisters discover that they have a much younger half-sister when they receive news about their dad’s death. Somewhat impulsively, they invite their little sister to move in with them and she accepts.

The rest of the movies is an impressionistic, episodic seeming bunch of episodes from the year as everyone gets acclimated to the new situation. Major events happen but they happen in ways that are much more subtle than any American film (including an indie film) would let them be. Loved-ones gets sick and die. The ne’er-do-well mother comes back for a family gathering and brings up selling the house and then is quickly told to shelve the plan, the mom goes away again. I think any American movie would handle these issues with maximum drama and stretched out the emotions. In Our Little Sister, they are handled like so much of life and the events unfurl as whispers, not bangs.

Over on the daily links, we are discussing whether there is a difference between literary fiction and genre fiction and what kind of person is drawn to each. Maybe one idea is that a fan of something literary (film or novels) has the patience for art that seems rather low-stakes. The joys of Our Little Sister don’t come from explosions or high-tension/stakes. The joys come from seeing how people develop and grow in real time. A year passes, the weather grows colder and then warmer, events large and small happen, and the world passes by and gets older before you realize what happens.

I don’t see any reason why a story whether it be a novel or a film needs to have a big twist. Life rarely has big twists. We are now in September. January feels like it was only yesterday. There were a lot of big events this year, not all of them good, but they happened and ended rather quickly like the big events in Our Little Sister.

The audiences for Our Little Sister are not big and as seems typical with these kinds of movies, I was the youngest person in the theater by about 25-30 years. Maybe more. Do people not like movies like Our Little Sister because they rely on emotion and personal growth instead of plot? Are we this addicted to the blockbuster?

The 2016 summer season of blockbusters was an economic disaster for Hollywood. Unfortunately for me, I don’t think Hollywood will look towards Our Little Sister as the answer. Though it probably couldn’t hurt to try.

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26 thoughts on “A Movie In Which Not Much Happens

  1. The audiences for Our Little Sister are not big and as seems typical with these kinds of movies, I was the youngest person in the theater by about 25-30 years. Maybe more. Do people not like movies like Our Little Sister because they rely on emotion and personal growth instead of plot? Are we this addicted to the blockbuster?

    Here’s another hypothesis. The death of newspapers has killed off this kind of movie, because it’s very difficult to find out about it. The older generation maybe has been slower to embrace the internet, and possibly still looks at newspapers, where you can see ads for this kind of thing. Which, by the way, never had a big audience, but it had a sustaining one.

    In-theater art film has been hit by this, and by the existence of streaming. Weirdly, it’s much easier to buy stuff like this on DVD or BluRay than it is to find it on a streaming service. And when you can find it, the cost of one showing is nearly as much as buying the DVD. That doesn’t make sense to me.

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    • Maybe. I love Hirokazu movies but I am pretty sure I heard about the release of Our Little Sister on the Internet and then looked up the release dates. I am not sure how.

      What does happen though is that movies like Our Little Sister are released on a slow-plan. They get released in NYC and LA and then spread to other cities instead of being released on several thousand screens as once. I am not sure for the reason of keeping this tradition. It used to be that prints were expensive and the movie would have to go around in the mail but that is not true anymore.

      The ads is a fair point.

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      • You live here in the Bay Area, and I wonder if you even know what “the pink section” is. Published by the SF Chronicle on Fridays it was an arts insert printed on pink-colored newsprint. It was a vital tool in finding out what sort of art/film/theater/concerts were going on.

        I keep wondering if there isn’t some way to make an internet-based business that fills that hole.

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        • I think they called it Datebook now. Can’t remember if it is on pinkpaper. I don’t think it is.

          Another issue is that I just might be more of a cinephile in that I believe in going to the cinema. This is contrary to present norms which says that movie theatres are for big spectacle and anything else can be viewed on a home screen. I don’t quite get the arguments here but I might be a big old romantic.

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        • The original pink section was a full, if tabloid-sized, section of the Sunday Chron, which would generally run 40-60 pages, and covered art, movies, plays, books, etc. It had a counterpart that my family called the white section (even though everything else but the Sporting Green was also white) that did long-form articles of the week’s news. Then there was the Sunday Punch, which was an extended op-ed section.

          Man, I miss a local paper that’s worth reading.

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        • My Sunday Times comes with a monthly arts newsletter for Bay Area arts.

          I am not sure there is a way for an on-line publication to do that kind of arts coverage. The Internet seems drawn to nostalgia. I think nostalgia is fine in doses but I continue to be awed by how much of the Internet is dominated by childhood nostalgia and there are whole communities of adults in their 30s and 40s endlessly talking about the cartoons of their youth.

          One way that the death of a local newspaper might hurt movies like Our Little Sister is that there are no longer local critics who can call attention to these movies. There don’t seem to be champions of these movies anymore.

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          • Ahh, internet ate my comment…

            In any case, very nice review In the end, I think this movie, not having wide release nor having huge audiences, will have a longer half-life than this years crop of summer blockbusters, much like My Life As A Dog did. And in the end, isn’t that a greater achievement?

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    • Baltimore has only on art house (with multiple screens). Fortunately, it is a pretty good one. In any case, if you are interested in this sort of thing, you keep up by checking their website. When there is only one place to look, this is not difficult. I have a harder time keeping track of the chamber music scene, with half a dozen or so outfits each doing their own thing.

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  2. Even in the pre-Block Buster age, the movies that did the best were spectacle driven like the big MGM musicals or the epic movies. Hollywood did produce serious drama and adult fair that did well but they were more emotional than this movies. Art house was a thing in the mid-20th century but I’m not sure how many people went. Same with indies during the 80s and 90s.

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  3. Unfortunately for me, I don’t think Hollywood will look towards Our Little Sister as the answer. Though it probably couldn’t hurt to try.

    I guess they’ll lose less money on cheap, low-key dramas almost no one wants to see than they will on “tentpole” action movies almost no one wants to see.

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    • Probably a fair assumption sadly. I suppose the majority of these articles are me trying to find out why movies like Our Little Sister don’t do well or “almost no one wants to see.”

      This gets back to the whole lit fic v. genre thing. Thrills are fine and all but they are not my primary reason for seeing movies. I don’t care if something is kickass or badass. I have a kind of loathing for those words anyway. Yet it seems to be the primary driver. People want to leave a movie feeling nothing more than what they saw was “kickass”.

      I also don’t get “So bad its good” and this gets me looks like I am an alien.

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      • My theory:

        Well, most people think “thrills are fine”. They may love them, or, like you, they may only kinda like ’em, but they’re better than nothing. Other niche stuff is… niche stuff. It may have a lot going for it, but it’s going to involve some sort of unusual preference for you to appreciate it.

        The problem that Hollywood seems to periodically suffer through is that they assume that “lowest common denominator” is the same thing as “crap”. Actually making something that almost everyone will find pretty enjoyable is not nearly as easy as it looks.

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  4. Last weekend I watched “Kubo and the Two Strings”. I loved it, but it also represents a part of the film industry that’s dying out. It’s more like a genre film – an animated feature with fantastical elements – but it isn’t really doing any better than “My Little Sister”.

    It suffers from the same issues having to do with discovery, I think. How would someone find out about it?

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  5. “The 2016 summer season of blockbusters was an economic disaster for Hollywood. ”

    But… was it? The link doesn’t really make that case particularly well.

    http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?view2=worldwide&yr=2016&p=.htm

    Captain America and Zootopia both topped $1B worldwide. Nine other films topped half a billion.

    It is true that some major releases were panned by critics. And maybe even some of them failed to live up to financial expectations. But I’m simply not seeing any evidence that a “disaster” occurred.

    Batman vs Superman might have been a crap movie. But it earned over $800M at the box office (foreign and domestic). Even with a $400M budget… that’s $400M profit (maybe less since I’m not sure if marketing is included in the initial budget figure).

    “Our Little Sister” earned less than $400K domestically. And while that was obviously tied to the number of screens it was released on, I doubt any number of screens would have yielded a 9-figure profit.

    So why would Hollywood look to OLS as the answer to the disaster that is 9-figure profits?

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    • So why would Hollywood look to OLS as the answer to the disaster that is 9-figure profits?

      heh.

      we live in a media age of plenty. or an age of too much. or an age of waaaaaaaay too much. perhaps even an age of holy hell please stop producing so much stuff. or whatever.

      just about something for everyone.

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