Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Annual Academy Awards
It’s a magical little documentary, barely an hour and twenty minutes long, but with a grand artistic spirit. The “journey” it depicts is simple(and as of this writing, it ain’t over yet), melancholic and persevering. And the “difficult” relationship that is its centerpiece is uncommonly candid. It’s surprisingly romantic, yet awash in selfishness and resentment. In other words, it’s astonishingly real. Money issues, alcoholism, career stagnation, child-rearing—it’s all here. And yet throughout it all, both 80 year-old Ushio Shinohara, and his “approaching 60” spouse Noriko, create art in New York City to support their meager existence. Love story? Tragedy? Combination of the two? You tell me. But it’s certainly one of 2013’s finest film creations.
Ushio and Noriko meet in 1969, when he is a 40ish, on-the-rise, avant-garde artist, and she is a teenage art student. The more mature and experienced man dazzles the starstruck young girl, and soon she is pregnant and they are married. Years of struggle ensue, as Noriko puts her own ambitions on hold to raise her young son as well as help support her talented, yet undisciplined and heavy-drinking husband. Ushio has created an impressive array of sculptures over the years, including a 7-foot tall, otherworldly looking motorcycle. And, of course, there are his signature “boxing” paintings, the composing of which consists 0f the wiry octogenarian punching paint onto vast canvasses with specially modified prizefighting gloves. It’s as astonishing to watch as it sounds. Meanwhile, Norika is slowly coming out of her self-imposed, artistic shell with a series of drawings entitled, “Cutie and Bullie”—and the Manhattan art scene is beginning to take notice. Just one guess who the characters of “Cutie” and “Bullie” most obviously represent.
Director Zachary Heinzerling deserves a world of credit for focusing so much of the proceedings on the daily mundane. Ushio and Noriko spend just as much time wondering how they are going to pay the rent and eat, as they are discussing the viability of their latest artistic projects. And then there is the catastrophe of their now 40ish, wayward, alcoholic son. We realize how he got that way having watched home movie footage of an inebriated, hard-partying Ushio, along with Noriko’s cartoon drawings of her life with her oft-plastered spouse. As the eldest son of a raging alcoholic, I can inform you that the pain and disappointment felt in the film is palpable. But watching the now elder Ushio and Norika compose their wares in the current day, juxtaposed with the vintage photos and archival footage of their more youthful endeavors is a fascinating education in dichotomy. I was recently almost certain that “The Act of Killing” was going to emerge the clear best of the quintet of documentary feature nominees. But, as far as I’m concerned now, “Cutie and the Boxer” gives it a run for its money. Grade: A
next review up: “Dirty Wars”