Toronto 2015: 'The Whispering Star' review

Sion Sono is nothing if not eclectic. Last year he dropped the gonzo bomb that was hip-hopera Tokyo Tribe (2014) on an enormously willing Toronto audience, and this year he is back with something that is almost the polar opposite. The Whispering Star (2015) is entirely devoid of oddball energy, instead remaining a remarkably contained affair despite traversing the farthest reaches of distant solar systems and the nature of memory, the relativity of time and the distinctly human notion of nostalgia. Distinct because these concepts are examined through the binary eyes of a cyborg, shuttling across space in a ship shaped like a Japanese bungalow with packages for the remnants of humanity.

This set-up may lend itself to easy shorthand as Futurama meets A.I. via Up, but such similarities are useful in framing Sono's thematic explorations, not understanding them. What is initially a science fiction chamber piece expands with the mind of its peripatetic protagonist into a deeply moving wander through the meaning of human materialism and the devastation caused by the Japanese earthquake in 2011. Much of the footage from the movie's latter half was shot in the region - locations perhaps familiar to fans from 2012's The Land of Hope - actual residents appear as the last vestiges of our race, coming into intermittent contact with the curious Yoko (Megumi Kagurazaka).

Yoko is the delivery droid who's like the housewife-cum-passenger on her cargo ship piloted by steam-punk HAL, Computing Device 722. Yoko cleans and makes tea, occasionally replacing the AA batteries that power her. The spaceship is a gloriously anachronistic affair with the opening shots taking several minutes to betray the narrative's sci-fi bent. Yoko begins to play back an old tape recording with her voice (either her own or a predecessor who is the same model - it is never clarified) and this strange temporal connection seems to spark something in Yoko. She slyly peaks at one of the parcels stacked at the back of the ship, struggling to understand the human need to send objects to one another across the cosmos. Sono has already begun toying with notions of nostalgia through the ship design even before Yoko's personal journey begins and title cards pop up throughout indicating the passing of days and illustrating the lack of effect that such trivialities have for a droid. Once Yoko begins to meet people, however, and to witness their unique relationship to the things around them, she herself begins to comprehend the power of objects to ignite the memory. A particular highlight is a friendly gentleman who teaches Yoko the joy of bicycle riding and who's eccentric footwear prompts a display in her of her own tactile recollection. The fact that the people for whom Yoko is delivering the stimuli for similar responses are survivors of a disaster would all but have obliterated their own physical memories only heightens the sense of importance. The Whispering Star may not be Sono at his most assertive - it certainly suffers in its middle section from the lack of thrust - but its imbued with tremendous resonance.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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