Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer Movie Review

The day before sitting down to watch Cutie and the Boxer, I was thinking about my approach to documentary films. I tend to review them from the perspective of my reaction to the material rather than the way that material is presented. If my primary focus as a critic is on narrative filmmaking, then what do I hope to get out of documentaries? So I decided to try to look at them in terms of the stories they tell and how they’re told instead of focusing solely on the subject matter. Then I watched this touching and at time melancholy tale of two Japanese artists who’ve made their lives and careers in New York and I found a great story presented in a fascinating way.


As a documentary, it does just what it should – it documents events and enriches them by presenting them in a particular order to allow a narrative to unfold. It uses old footage from a TV special many years ago as sort of flashback material and it uses the comic strip art of Noriko and animates it to present the subtext of the narrative.

Cutie and the Boxer are Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. Ushio is twenty years Noriko’s senior and they met when she was just nineteen in the early 60s and had come to New York to be an artist. He took her under his wing and six months later she was pregnant. He is the Boxer because some of his paintings are created by dipping sponge-covered boxing gloves in paint and punching the canvas repeatedly. It’s a Jackson Pollock-inspired style that illustrated tremendous energy in the production of the piece. Cutie is the moniker of Noriko’s comic strip alter ego, a young artist living with an older alcoholic artist named Bullie, who is thus named either because of his treatment of Cutie or for his knack of acting the bull in a china shop.

Now Ushio is in his 80s, but as the film explores their relationship (they are almost never directly interviewed one-on-one) a story emerges of a young woman whose dreams were deferred in service to an overbearing egomaniac who always placed his artistic desires above everything, including the raising of their son. Ushio no longer drinks, but that hardly atones for the years of misery Noriko endured. Director Zachary Heinzerling shows us both the love between these two old souls (hard as it may be to observe) as well as the bitterness, jealousy, and resentments that have built from years of disappointments of living a nearly destitute lifestyle.

By the time the closing credits roll over slow motion images of the two boxing glove sponge painting each other (though he takes the bulk of the punches), we sense that there is, if not true affection of years between them, then an understanding and acceptance of who each of them is. And hopefully it’s nothing that a few good whacks of a boxing glove can’t cure.

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