Film Review: Faraway My Shadow Wandered (2020)


Faraway My Shadow Wandered is a hybrid documentary combining elements of dance and docu-fiction that coalesce to form an enigmatic exploration of one’s family history. The film follows Junya, who returns to his childhood hometown, coming to terms with a failed promise he made to take over his grandfather’s Shinto shrine. Co-directed by Liao Jiekai and Sudhee Liao, the film was initially conceived during the interdisciplinary Cinemovement residency, where one filmmaker collaborates with one dance artist to research, conceptualise, and ultimately produce a dance film. This is their second collaboration after working together on The Mist, a short film that received the best director prize in the 27th SGIFF.



Set in the coastal town of Animizu, a region on the Noto Peninsula of Japan, the film opens with an almost wordless prologue featuring a female dancer in a windbreaker contorting with trembling hands inside a cave as the swelling tide rises. The person is Sara (a Singaporean dancer based internationally), who is researching material for her new dance piece. A male figure in the shadow descends the rocky stairs into the cave as if observing her solitary performance from the shadows. It turns out to be an elliptical cut revealing Junya (with a film camera in hand) approaching the same space the dancer was in. His slow and stoic demeanour contrasts with the dancer as he stands in a half-bow position, reciting a prayer to the Gods to be purified as the waves come crashing. The film then jumps spatially and temporally to the interior of a Shrine. Junya, donning an elaborate traditional attire performs a religious ritual before the film cuts to the title card (a poignant vignette suggesting what it could have been if he fulfilled his grandfather’s wish). 


As the film begins proper after the title intro, we approach Junya’s personal story through the gaze of Sara. In their first meeting at an Izakaya, we find out that they coincidentally share the same birthday, further drawing similarities and parallels between the two. And also inciting her to travel with Junya back to his childhood home. The film sets up two distinct modes of being—Sara experiencing life in the present through her dance while Junya’s present is filtered through recollections of past regrets. His detachment from the present is symbolised by his frequent use of the camera to capture locations of his childhood. 


In the fairly long car scenes with Junya, the static camera remains on him as he recounts his childhood while occasionally stopping the car to take photographs of the places of his past using a film camera. The film presents these locations in the form of photographs instead of cutaways of the actual locations. These static and murky film stills suggest Junya’s experience of the present is irrevocably tied to the past. Junya’s narration of his internal conflict about not fulfilling his grandfather’s wishes does at times feel inert. As a viewer, it can be quite hard to relate without much knowledge of his family's religious tradition and why it is so important to him.

Although the driving scenes with Junya is a formally inventive approach in showing how he views the present, the over-reliance on exposition does become repetitive without revealing any deeper insight and eventually bogs down the narrative drive of the film (no pun intended). In retrospect, I wished there was some form of interaction between Junya and Sara during the car scenes, which would probably have revealed more about themselves. 


Sara throughout the film seems to be relegated to being a cipher, antithetical to his mode of experience. She is presented without a past, existing as a metaphorical shadow and is even dressed in black in contrast to Junya’s white sweater. Junya, back in his hometown, wanders through the Shrine and then to his abandoned childhood home. The camera drifts through the gloomy space, adopting his pov and eventually fixes its gaze on Sara, her body moving with balletic finesse as if she is in a trance.

The dance sequences are raw and almost improvisatory, with Sara fully immersed in the present moment as the camera becomes transfixed on her, capturing every fluid and sudden convulsive movements. The handheld nature of capturing the dancer makes it feel spontaneous and fleeting, inviting viewers to be in the moment. The mystifying sequence could be seen as a surreal one as if Junya is watching Sara embodying his psyche, confronting his past.


The stark contrast between the scenes centring mainly on Junya in the car and Sara respectively brings forth the film’s formal tension between film and dance. It exemplifies that film is still primarily a visual medium that oscillates between movement and stasis over the reliance on narration and exposition. This tension allows the dance pieces to shine, being visceral and enthralling in the process of portraying intangible human complexities, as compared to film’s tendency to fall back on exposition to pine for the viewer’s empathy for its characters. 


What makes up for the film’s lack of narrative drive is the film’s atmospheric setting within the harsh winter locations and dance sequences captured evocatively through its cinematography. Notably, there is an impressive long take near the end of the film, seeing Sara in a wide shot as if wrestling against the rising tides and wind on a rocky coast as Junya watches on. These moments and the malaise the characters feel immerse us in the forbidding landscapes and the feeling of being alienated in one’s childhood hometown. Faraway My Shadow Wandered is meandering and unfocused at times, but never tedious in its meditative reckoning with one’s tenebrous past.   


Faraway My Shadow Wandered was previously screened at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival last year. It will be screened at the IFFR (International Film Festival Rotterdam) 2021 June Programme. You can watch the trailer here.




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