The Black Square

Alternative title (Chinese): 黒四角
Year: 2012
Country: China/Japan
Language: Mandarin, some Japanese
Director: Okuhara Hiroshi
Studio: Black Square Film
Screenplay: Okuhara Hiroshi
Cinematography: Maki Kenji
Soundscore: Sangatsu
Cast: Nakaizumi Hideo, Hong Dan, Xixu Chen, Suzuki Miki
Runtime: 144 min
Distribution: N/a
Film’s official website:  N/a


Special thanks to Raindance, which provided me with a preview screener of this film. Kuroi shikaku showed at the 21st Raindance Film Festival on September 28, 2013. I previously featured the film on Trailer Weekly #79/80.

When Japanese film director Okuhara Hiroshi travelled to Bejing in 2008 and visited the Song Zhuang Artist Village he spoke no Chinese. The place – the experience – seemed surreal to him, or, as he explained, “the whole atmosphere felt like science fiction, including the surroundings. I felt I could shoot a Tarkovsky-like movie in this place. […] That’s how it all began.” (quote) The science fiction comes with the black square from the film’s title, which Zhao-ping (Xixu Chen), a rather nonchalant Chinese painter that lives in an artists’ colony with his Japanese girlfriend Hana (Suzuki Miki), sees hovering in the sky one day. More curious than alarmed by the unusual sight, he follows the square as it floats over streets and rooftops, until it eventually lands on solid ground in a barren, wintery field. As Zhao-ping goes closer to inspect the strange object, a young man (Nakaizumi Hideo, from「はなればなれに」/Hanarebanareni/Kuro, 2012) suddenly steps out of it – butt-naked and seemingly unable to communicate.

Although Zhao-ping is somewhat vexed by his non-responsiveness, he also feels sorry for the man, lending him some of his own clothes and taking him home. When the stranger eventually does speak, it turns out that he is amnesic, and without the slightest memory of who he is or where he may be from. Hana and Lihua (Hong Dan), Zhao-ping’s younger sister, find the man, whom they now all call “Black Square”, rather mysterious but ultimately harmless – although both, Lihua in particular, cannot shake off the feeling that he seems familiar. Here Okuhuara again builds on fantastical elements, drawing on another impression of his 2008 visit: that Bejing is a place of ghosts of the past. A major city in China for more than 2000 years, it has been recreated every time those in power have changed. Houses have been torn down, walls have been painted over, people have come and gone and left traces – or merely a sensation of their once-having-been in the air. The director’s nod to the past is to the Sino-Japanese war, the characters reappearing in an earlier reincarnation of themselves. How such a thing – a surreal story within a story, a memory that travels too far back in time to belong to the original characters – is not made clear, nor is it the only detail that viewers must figure out for themselves.

Strange man, naked.

Stranger from the Black Square, without clothes and words.

Kuroi shikaku is a film that meanders. It doesn’t explain much and, even when it does, leaves plenty open to interpretation – perhaps too much for some viewers. The handful reviews that there are for Kuroi shikaku – a tiny indie and essentially only a festival film – are therefore unsurprisingly mixed. Most cite the fact that little happens combined with an overly long running time of 144 minutes as problematic, criticisms that have some validity. However, certainly the issue of length is not one uncommon to Japanese films, which seem to nearly always extend over two hours. While cuts are possible and would – here and in other instances – probably be beneficial, J-films are best viewed knowing that the pacing is often different than from productions elsewhere. For as overly long as Kuroi shikaku might feel, it also carries with it a strangely bewitching unpredictability and, as a Chinese-Japanese co-production that touches on the two nations’ historical relations, a quiet symbolism, that make the film worth watching for those among us that don’t require an action-filled, plot-dense story every time.

Rating: 7.5/10

Overall verdict: Kuroi shikaku is a film that meanders. It doesn’t explain much and when it does, leaves plenty open to interpretation. And yet, it carries with it a strangely bewitching unpredictability and, as a Chinese-Japanese co-production that touches on the two nations’ historical relations, a quiet symbolism – enough to make it worth watching.

Bonus bits:

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