There’s something about house guests. What gives them their cinematic ubiquity in everything from drama (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle) to comedy (You, Me and Dupree – I forgot that existed too)? Maybe it’s their limitless potential to cause awkwardness and conflict. As if families don’t have enough of that already.
Harmonium follows the quiet life of Toshio, a craftsman, his wife Akie, and their young daughter. Toshio and Aike make for a silently dispassionate pair, two entirely different individuals whose lives occasionally bump into each other. One sunny day, Toshio gets a surprise visit from Yasata, an old friend who was recently released from prison. Before we know it, Yasata has been offered a job at Toshio’s workshop and moved in with the family. While seemingly meek and servile, there may be more to their guest than they think. There always is, isn’t there?
This is a slow-burner. That may be a definite deal-breaker for some but I’ve always held that a slow-burner isn’t the same thing as a movie that’s just plain slow. What makes a slow-burner is the deliberateness of its pace and how it purposefully builds on what came before. There is purpose too in its spacious cinematography. Our camera follows the action at a leisurely distance or remains static to let us soak in the environment. The end effect is a measured, slice-of-life approach that lulls you into normality even as it begins pulling the rug out from under you. This gives the most emotionally harrowing scenes an almost confrontational realism, the movie daring you to put yourself in the characters’ shoes.
Appropriately, performances are kept subdued and naturalistic. The downside of using “natural” characters is that they often come across as just underwritten, a situation this movie unfortunately finds itself in. There are times when great actors can overcome their thin characters but in a story that relies so heavily on them it’s an uphill battle that Harmonium often loses. The result is the occasionally tip into the bad kind of slow, the kind not even I would defend.
As the movie progresses, we gradually realise that this isn’t a story about revenge so much as it is one about family. It acts as an antithesis to similar familial stories, the ones soaked in lies, secrets, revenge etc. Unlike them, we do not come for the shouting, screaming, fighting. No matter how shocking a revelation or how egregious a betrayal, what lasts here is the quietness of characters who know that this is not a movie. This is the rest of their lives.
Harmonium is on limited release from the 5th of May