Film Review: Silent Drama ‘N.P’ Hypnotises and Marvels With Its Tangled Tale of Human Connection5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Based on the 1990 experimental novel by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto, N.P is a silent film translation of the text into a cinematic scenario.
Director: Lisa Spilliaert
Cast: Clara Spilliaert, Mikiko Kawamura, Saartje Van de Steene, Hiroshi Miyamura
Country: Japan, Belgium
Language: English subtitles
Runtime: 60 minutes
Experimental short film N.P is nowhere as intimidating as its premise, trailer or its format would suggest — quite the contrary. The approach here is head-spinning, being a dialogue-less adaptation of a Japanese novel which deals with a bizarre tale of ‘over translation’ and incest. N.P constantly draws to attention the divides between cultures, languages and peoples, only to — so poetically and beautifully — affirm the universal human connections that can be formed and bridge us all.
N.P is based on an experimental novel by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto. The story unfolds around a collection of 97 short stories by fictional writer Sarao Takase, who wrote them in English with Japanese in mind. Soon after his suicide, a 98th story is unearthed but similarly claimed to the lives of translators who have attempted to decipher it.
One of them is Shoji, Kazami’s (Clara Spilliaert) ex-boyfriend. Years later by chance, Kazami runs into Sarao’s twin children, son Otohiko (Hiroshi Miyamura) and daughter Saki (Saartje Van de Steene). Their world is turned upside down by Sui (Mikiko Kawamura), Otohiko’s girlfriend and half-sister who is obsessed with the 98th story.
To get it out of the way, yes, incest is a huge part of N.P’s story. It probably will be unnerving for many with how the characters are quite matter-of-fact about the bizarre love triangle, going as far as Saki asking her brother what it feels like to be intimate with their half-sister. Fortunately, the film never reaches for shock value.
This nonchalance wouldn’t be as disturbing if they weren’t indifferent about everything else too. It’s a tone that seeps into the filmic storytelling housed in its 4:3 ratio, somehow facilitating the blooming of an enrapturing tale. N.P’s other main theme is the blending of cultures and peoples, made all the more noticeable with some of the cast’s mixed heritage. The film constantly places itself in between pairs.
On the cultural front, a third language is chosen to tell a Japanese-English story: silence. What is heard are snippets of ambience or focuses on minute details — the clanging of cups and the ruffling of clothing — that are determined to draw attention away from the subtitles. What is mostly seen is, similarly, told through the third language of indifference. The world the characters inhabit feels cold, mechanical and far too clean and proper, betraying the whirlwind of emotions within the characters.
Yet, this almost alien atmosphere still brims with warmth. It’s quite magical. The cast is largely indifferent about their lives, especially the film’s lead Kazami. Yet, this does lead to her being a suitable and necessary plain canvas to be splashed with the soft-heartedness of Otohiko, the debilitating madness of Sui, and the hypnotising beauty of their muted world.
Whenever the camera doesn’t drift off, it’s placed amidst the aching distance between face-to-face conversations. What draws them closer are the deafening emotions of love, death, and family. Whenever they do traverse their distance, it feels like they have crossed — or at least, tried to cross — irreconcilable divides linked to the themes of the story. In a more straightforward sense, this approach does condition audiences for probably the most beautiful and gentle conclusion (and credit sequence) they have seen in a while.
N.P presents a lot to chew on. Every frame and movement — right down to the highly choreographed performances — feels orchestrated, deliberately placing itself between two worlds. The film journeys into this foreign world with the audience in mind, leaving bread crumbs through a largely incisive telling of a collar-tugging yet undeniably enchanting premise of a cursed story.
Avenues for more cerebral interpretations are clear and open. However, N.P makes no qualms that at its core lies a tremendously hearty experience based around human connection. It is, frankly, rather unsettling with how evocative the hour-long film turned out to be, with how warm the characters are even if we never hear their voices nor are we completely able to relate to their experiences. Yet, the film’s intentions never felt less than pure. N.P wanders with the innocence of a daydream, sticking around long after the film’s mesmerising summer concludes.
N.P will be screening at the Oldham Theatre on 23 May, Sunday, as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2021. It will also be available to watch online on SIFA on Demand from 31 May to 6 June. SIFA on Demand will feature festival programmes, including theatre and music performances, and films curated by the Asian Film Archive.
About Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021
Happening from 14 – 30 May, SIFA 2021 continues to present captivating and diverse works across theatre, music, dance, film and visual arts since its inception in 1977 as the Singapore Festival of Arts. Find out more about the plethora of programmes showcased this year at https://sifa.sg/2021-programmes