Thursday 29 February 2024

Happiness is easy: "Perfect Days"

The Wim Wenders filmography has grown rather wild and woolly over the course of the 21st century: several dramatic misfires,
lots of non-fiction free-roaming, much of that worthwhile in some way. Right from its opening image of a woman brushing fallen leaves from a path, Perfect Days is Wenders tidying up, the authorial equivalent of bonsai. Neatly composed Academy frames, occupied mostly by the one performer; a wispy narrative line; an editing strategy in which each shot is inserted seamlessly into the next, like a key in a lock; a quiet but insistent emphasis on everyday pleasures, scored to a handful of old familiar rock songs; a pacifying sense of everything in its rightful place. In its diligent neatness, Wenders' direction mirrors the film's protagonist Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), a Tokyo toilet cleaner observed as he goes about his daily rounds. The first revelation here is that public toilets would appear far more salubrious in Japan than they generally are elsewhere: architecturally striking, emblazoned in bold colours, boasting state-of-the-art privacy features, Ozu-like sliding doors, and a dedicated support staff - including Hirayama, on this evidence the most assiduous of them all - polishing each surface and checking under every rim 24/7. This camera's yen for tidiness means the film often resembles last year's stealth blockbuster Godzilla Minus One, albeit translated into a becalmed arthouse idiom. If Wenders deigns to identify an antagonist at all here, it's not a 50ft mutant sea lizard, but that which floats up from the bottom of the bowl - though these frames are kept so militantly pristine we never see the worst of it. Back at Hirayama's apartment, meanwhile, we start to get an idea of why the film has inspired the five-star responses it has. Looking around at the stuffed racks of yellowing secondhand books, cassettes and VHS tapes, any self-identifying culture vulture's dream, one realises Perfect Days is at heart a fantasy of having just enough resources (financial and spiritual) to get by, and of leaving the messes of this world behind us when we shut the door for the night. It's well-scrubbed escapism, where a charmer like Kaurismäki's Fallen Leaves - with its puncturing bulletins from the Russia-Ukraine war - had a dash more salt, grit and shit in the mix. (Perfect Days got the Oscar nod; Fallen Leaves didn't.)

Still, since globalisation has exported on-your-knees drudgery to the four corners of the Earth, the fantasy is apparently a universal one; Perfect Days has handed this most cultured of directors his first real round-the-world crowdpleaser since 1999's Buena Vista Social Club. Coming along some while after the film received its first bouquets on the festival circuit, I was struck by just how little there is to it. Minimalist to the max, it feels like Wenders' response to the hypercomplicated worldbuilding so prevalent elsewhere in the contemporary cinema - some kind of fresh air in the context of so much boysy braggadocio and BO. (Dune: Part Two opens in cinemas everywhere tomorrow.) What it has above all else is Koji Yakusho, foursquare in his solidity, showcasing a politesse we can't help but admire in our moviestars because we so rarely witness it elsewhere, and a twinkle in his eye that is sometimes revealed to be a tear of either grief or gratitude. Beyond him, the rest is mostly minutiae. Around its supporting characters, Perfect Days keeps lapsing into Zen baby talk (now is now), as if adapting Spiritual Contentment for Dummies (with Dunnies), its ricepaper script resistant to anything that might disrupt its hero's carefully tended inner peace. (I make no attempt to synopsise the plot, because the film doesn't really have one: it makes Hirokazu Kore-eda's famously sedate dramas seem like rollercoaster thrill rides.) With the grand romantic gestures of Wings of Desire now long behind him (another country), Wenders keenly encourages us to take refuge in the simple things - a good book, friendly faces, the morning coffee - though these particular examples can't sustain a two-hour running time, and everything is wrapped up with another of awards season 2023-24's Clangingly Obvious Soundtrack Cues. What's going on here? Has even the arthouse sector decided its halls have been overrun with nuance-missing idiots? Much as Andrew Haigh resorted to "The Power of Love" to underline whatever points All of Us Strangers had to make about, you know, the power of love, Wenders means to send us out feeling good by turning to - yes - Nina Simone's "Feeling Good". At the last, Perfect Days demonstrates all the complexity and profundity of a fortune cookie - but then I guess folks can't resist gobbling those down on a night out, too.

Perfect Days is now playing in selected cinemas.

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