Feelings are unutterable and intimacy unbearable in the Japan depicted in writer-director Kudo Riho’s Let Me Hear It Barefoot. On the rare occasion that a stranger brushes against another and sparks fly, the most that can emerge in a nation built on affective control is a game of pretence and muffling. And yet, queer love lives, even if through maladroit means, as repression erupts unexpectedly, erratically, and even violently.
Such is the dynamic that plays out between Maki (Suwa Shuri) and Naomi (Sasaki Shion) once the boys meet at a public swimming pool and they slip into queerness, despite their most rational wishes. When Maki, who works at the pool, comments on Naomi’s bad swimming in a light-hearted way, Naomi is struck by his cheekiness. A later chance re-encounter becomes an opportunity for the two lonely boys to bond over their love for analog technology, like vinyl records and tape recorders. They eventually escape into a fantasy world where emotions remain unspoken, but each other’s soothing presence is rendered possible.
Maki lives with Midori (Fubuki Jun), an ailing blind woman. Once she’s hospitalized, she gives Maki her savings so that he can travel around the world because she’s no longer able to. The idea is that Maki will send her letters describing what he sees and Midori will experience the trips by proxy. Instead of using the money to travel, Maki stays in Japan and starts recording audio letters to send Midori on what seems like a daily basis. On each tape he pretends to be in a different part of the globe, using makeshift audio effects to build a convincing aural atmosphere. When Naomi finds out about the arrangement, he joins Maki in producing these sound stories and giving the tape to Midori during his visits to her at the hospital.
The setup gives way to beautiful sequences where Maki and Naomi make up the foreign scenery of Maki’s fake travels through sound rather delicately, getting sufficiently close to each other’s bodies to feel their warmth. Yet not close enough for the situation to become undeniably erotic. They use a sand pit in a field to make it seem to Midori that Maki is visiting the Moroccan desert; travel to Capri by way of rowing a small float in a pool; and simulate a visit to the wheat fields of the Canadian prairie by stepping on VHS tapes. Nearby waterfalls also become the Iguaçu Falls in their storytelling getaways. There’s a sensuality to their craft, but one that’s always mediated, and excused, by the practical goal of their creative endeavor.
Kudo captures the boys’ relationship with such nuance that it would be reductive to refer to Maki and Naomi’s relationship as simply gay. The boys’ lives are defined by an inability to express themselves in every register, not just in matters of sexuality or love. From Midori’s secretiveness about her youth to Naomi’s perennial lump in the throat whenever his father (Kômoto Masahiro) is around, relationships in Japan are represented as only possible if the truth is preemptively discarded. For Naomi, who has an awfully formal relationship with his father, the foley sessions with Maki are a way to escape the dreary muteness of homelife.
These adventures in audio also, of course, allow Naomi to experience another boy’s body through play so that the signifier “gay” can be kept at bay. There’s no passage to a sexual act that would be evidently queer but a constant simmering in its prelude. And, at times, aggressive horseplay. It’s all a masquerade—a way of obtaining pleasure through the margins, engaging in one’s desire without having to own it, confront it, or name it.
Expressing one’s feelings, or the tacit agreement to never do so directly, is also at the heart of writer-director Gao Linyang’s moving To Love Again. Here the life of an elderly couple, Li (Li Xuejian) and Nie (Song Xiaoying), consists of a series of unspoken words, miscommunications, brief but wounding declarations cloaked in banal statements, and looking for their house cat, who flees for the hills every time the apartment door is cracked open.
In the China of Linyang’s film, the idea of family is only whole until it must be materialized. As soon as proof of its coherence is demanded in the shape of a photographic portrait, it breaks down almost immediately. Li and Nie, who are both on their second marriage, make arrangements to have their family portrait professionally done. It’s a life-affirming event for them that masks the certainty of the loneliness that they experience in their routine, making them forget that, in reality, the family is nothing but a fantasy.
The photoshoot requires several people—relatives who seem to play only a nostalgic role in the couple’s everyday lives—to willingly show up for once. The children and stepchildren never arrive and Li and Nie try to reschedule the shoot. Forced to dress up for the photograph and pose alone, they watch, with a mixture of joy and horror, as the lab technicians assemble their portrait by photoshopping each member of the family into the image.
The film’s most striking and subtle through line has to do with where the ashes go when one dies, which becomes a particularly difficult question with recomposed families such as Li and Nie’s. The grave of Li’s deceased first wife, for instance, needs to be vacated, and he considers moving her ashes to the grave that he’s arranged for Nie and himself when they die. An urn with various compartments should do the trick. Perhaps a transparent one, “that way you’ll be able to see each other,” says the urn maker. But what will Nie think about the solution?
The ashes work as the very lining of To Love Again, reminding us of the role of death, or the dread of loneliness in the face of the void, in making people endure the most uncomfortable of living conditions. In one of the many scenes of domestic ennui between Nie and Li, they share a meal in complete silence. The silence is interrupted by him telling her to stir her soup. “Maybe we should be buried separately,” she says. To which he replies, “Let’s not talk about it.”
International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from January 26—February 6.