Starring: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida, Kôji Mitsui
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Running Time: 146 mins
Woman In The Dunes is a Japanese film about a scientist on vacation who finds himself trapped in an isolated desert village, being forced to shovel sand alongside a woman who spends her life in total isolation.
The survival genre is unquestionably my favourite of all, but if there’s one way to make it all the more striking, then landing a story right in the middle of the Japanese New Wave is certainly it. In that, Woman In The Dunes is an exciting and engrossing watch, with a heavy-going and genuinely disturbing core that makes for a deeply unsettling watch throughout, but one that flows brilliantly thanks to stunning directing and two outstanding lead performances.
In fact, there’s a lot that makes Woman In The Dunes such a striking film, but it’s director Hiroshi Teshigahara that really makes the film stand out so much. You’ve seen desert movies before, Lawrence Of Arabia, Ice Cold In Alex etc., but there is arguably no other film out there that demonstrates the unforgiving brutality of sand in such terrifying and striking fashion.
While all of those other films portray the overwhelming vastness of a desert landscape, Woman In The Dunes takes a different approach, looking at sand as a terrifying force of nature. In that, while we do get the sense of isolation in a vast desert, the film is actually a lot more claustrophobic, partly because it takes place mostly in one small, lonely house, but also because it portrays the main characters as being constantly closed in by the moving sand, suffocated from living a normal life by the incessant presence of sand wherever they are.
If you were to say to me that there were a two and a half hour movie that’s all about sand out there, I would expect it to be the most tedious film imaginable. However, Teshigahara gives the desert and the sand a persona that’s arguably even more fascinating than any character on screen, and coupled with jaw-dropping cinematography that portrays the flowing and moving sand as a vast and unforgiving ocean, it makes for a genuinely enthralling and uniquely unsettling watch.
But it’s not just the sand that makes Woman In The Dunes so disturbing, because its core story is also full of dark, heavy-going drama that you can’t help but look away from. It’s a harrowing tale of a man abducted by local villagers, where he finds himself stuck agonisingly out of reach of escape and civilisation, and instead forced to spend his days pointlessly shovelling sand.
That alone would be enough to make for a very heavy-going watch, but it’s the relationship he develops with the woman he finds himself stuck with, and her own backstory, that makes the film all the more unsettling, as it continues to pound you with dark and disturbing revelations that make the situation on screen seem all the more hellish, The physical toll doesn’t come anywhere close to just how overwhelming the psychological toll of the ordeal is, and that’s something that’s furthered by the two stunning lead performances from Eiji Okada ad Kyôko Kishida.
Developing in fascinating fashion throughout, the film is an engrossing look at the will to survive and the limits of human endeavour, and while you find yourself immersed in the harrowingly claustrophobic space of a man helplessly stuck in the middle of nowhere, the film continues to introduce thought-provoking and suprising twists into the mix that keep the story an engrossing and unpredictable watch across its two and a half hour runtime.
Overall, I was hugely impressed by Woman In The Dunes. It’s an intense, disturbing and rather overwhelming film that features an engrossing and equally harrowing look at the unforgiving nature of the desert, as well as the devastating reality that can come about when one is forced to do anything to survive, all of which is brought together in stunning fashion from director Hiroshi Teshigahara, and that’s why I’m giving this film a 7.8.