Japanese cult film director Sion Sono takes a break from kinetic insanity with The Whispering Star, a beautiful, quiet meditation on time, nostalgia and memory.
Several hundred years from now, only a small percentage of humans remain, scattered across the galaxy, mostly replaced by robots and humanoid androids. One of these androids, Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), has lived onboard a spaceship for the past 14 years, delivering parcels to the last remaining humans. After decades in transit, Yoko is delivering parcels to hollowed-out shopping malls and cities in ruins (shot in abandoned prefectures in Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear crisis).
Strangely for a sci-fi film, The Whispering Star is totally unconcerned with futuristic depictions of spaceships and robots. The vessel Yoko travels aboard is 1980s retro, with an interior that could be any cramped apartment in Tokyo by way of Spaceballs. Blinking lightbulbs, leaky faucets, and a HAL-esque navigation device built out of an old vacuum cleaner predominate – even Yoko herself runs on a series of AA batteries. The past is the present in this universe, right down to how it’s rendered almost completely in black and white.
Yoko herself is a deliberately blank character, with an unchanging face that never ages, even as she attempts to chart the passage of time via an audio diary on an ancient tape recorder. Every day, she puts on a floral skirt, does her hair and makeup, makes tea, and diligently cleans her spacecraft in a series of repetitive scenes that bring to mind films like Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which illustrate the never-ending monotony of “female work.” The passage of time is marked by title cards that read “Monday,” “Tuesday,” and so on, but some smart editing illustrates that there’s very little difference between the days.
Yoko is a robot, who has presumably lived her entire life on board this spacecraft, and yet she knows how to clean the floors and curl her hair, insinuating that even in the future, men and women are programmed to fulfill societal requirements. Yoko even implies that there is a whole series of “Yoko Suzukis,” female deliverywomen whose sole duty is to transport memories to beings across the galaxy. Yoko is a manifestation of the past come to life.
The fact that Yoko’s packages take at least a decade to arrive to their recipients across galaxies leads to some frequently heartbreaking scenes where Yoko waits, unmoving in empty boutiques and dilapidated cigarette stalls manned by elderly men and women, relics of a former time who react with grief, fondness, or stoic dignity when confronted with items from their past. Yoko has no past to speak of, but in reconnecting people with theirs, she can begin to build her own memories.
The Whispering Star had its world premiere at TIFF15 as part of The Contemporary World Cinema Programme.
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