Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko’s Kuro isn’t just a movie; it’s a mystery, a mood, an intangible atmosphere of alien dread and ethereal beauty. You don’t just watch it; you give yourself over to it so it can infect your mind and senses. Much like the slow-burning thrillers of Michael Haneke and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), it’s a puzzle with its pieces laid out before you, allowing you to make your own connections, to seek your own answers. But these puzzles are not meant to be solved. They’re designed to frustrate, confuse, and confound our sensibilities. It’s in the frantic searching for answers that we grasp their brilliance.
There is a plot in Kuro, much as there are characters. I have my own interpretation of what happens, but I don’t claim to be correct. I suspect everyone who sees the film will find their own meanings—and I also suspect that they will all be equally valid. This is the mark of great art. I have seen multitudes of mind-numbingly esoteric art films on the festival circuit drowned in obfuscated symbolism and self-satisfaction towards their supposed cleverness. But these were so many emperors without clothing; they were as intellectually shallow as they were frustrating. But in Kuro I see bottomless depths.
Kuro is really two stories in one: a story that is seen, a story that is heard. In the story that we see, a Japanese woman living in Paris named Romi (co-director Tujiko Noriko) tends to her paraplegic and catatonic lover Milou (Jackie). His mind a million miles away, Romi tends to his every physical need. Her nights spent working in a karaoke bar are a blur, her days at home with Milou an anhedonic slog.
The story we hear is much, much different. As the film begins, Romi literally starts to tell a story to Milou to pass the time. She begins with her youth in America, her studies in Europe, her romance with Milou, their early life living together in Japan. But then Romi gets a new job as a live-in caretaker for an infirm man named Mr. Ono. An odd fellow, he passes his days listening to old Enka records played at half-speed. Some days he tasks Romi with delivering pots of strange flowers to all the local businesses, other days he has Romi cut off his knee warts so he can collect them in plastic baggies. But eccentricities aside, their relationship is pleasant enough. But things change when Milou loses his job as an interpreter and Romi invites him to stay with her in Mr. Ono’s apartment.
What follows can perhaps best be described as a folie à trois. Milou becomes more erratic while Romi practically becomes a shut-in. Stressed by his new house-guest, Mr. Ono literally tries to make himself disappear by wrapping himself in black tape, mimicking Bunraku puppeteers who dressed in all black so they would appear invisible on blackened stages. Both Romi and Milou start calling him Mr. Kuro—Japanese for Mr. Black—and treat him abusively, sometimes leaving him alone in his room for days on end.
And here is where I’ll leave off with the plot. It’s not that I’m worried of spoilers, it’s that I don’t want to contaminate anybody with my interpretation of what happens. Because here’s the kicker: what we see and what he hear only really match up for the first few minutes of the film. After a time, they divulge. Sometimes the two stories will rhyme, such as a scene where Romi describes Mr. Ono’s physical therapy while performing similar treatment on Milou. But mostly we see a fragmented series of images, some with Milou and Romi, but most without. The overall effect can probably be best compared to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), a documentary/travelogue that juxtaposed conflicting images with a voice-over narration. We can appreciate the visual and oral components separately if we turn off the audio input or the video feed. But by combining the two, the film creates a third story, something more intangible, fleeting, and achingly beautiful.
As I’ve said, I have my own opinions on what Kuro could “mean.” I’ll give you three hints. First hint: I think the oral story is supposed to be taken metaphorically, not literally. Second hint: we never see Mr. Ono onscreen for a reason.
But even if we could parse out what may or may not happen in Kuro, reducing it to a simple plot misses the point. It’s so much more than a story. Consider a sequence of heart-stopping beauty where Romi and Milou discover a dead garden on the roof of Mr. Ono’s apartment building. We see neither character on said roof, merely a sequence of static shots of the dead and dying plants wasting away. And yet, among the carcasses of ferns and shrubs, small sprouts peak up towards the sun, gasping for air and light. As the film sits quietly and regards them, we’re overwhelmed with a sense of impermanence and urban alienation. These plants were all tended to and loved once, but they have been abandoned to their own fates in a strange, foreign environment. And yet life, no matter how broken, still goes on.
Huh…I guess I just gave you guys a third hint after all.