2023 will surely go down in history as the year Ogawa An owned the international festival circuit. Okay, maybe not really, but Following the Sound is the third film that this writer has covered in 2023 that the actress has starred in, following Berlinale’s There Is a Stone and Japan Cuts’ Plastic. Following the Sound more closely resembles the former than the latter, being the kind of festival film where the mystery of the plot involves figuring out what exactly the plot is. Or, looked at more productively perhaps, it’s the kind of movie where the specifics of plot and backstory don’t matter because the narrative is fundamentally an emotional one; a vibes-based art cinema. For those who read these things, the festival description gives more narrative information than the actual film does — although hilariously, the plot descriptions given in those for the Venice and FIDMarseille festivals don’t quite say the same thing, as if even the festival programmers (or director Kyoshi Sugita and his PR team, whoever it is that writes these things) are taking their best guess as to what happens in the movie and why.
Ogawa plays a young woman who meets and befriends a couple of seemingly unrelated older people. The meetings are possibly by chance or possibly on purpose, and she may have met both of them some time before (they both tell her she seems familiar). In between hanging out with these people, Ogawa does other stuff: she takes a filmmaking class, she works at a bookstore that sells tea and doughnuts, she meets people at a coffee shop. She also spends time listening to an old cassette tape of some kind of white noise, possibly a river, and tries to track down where it was recorded. The woman accompanies her on these trips, which have something to do with Ogawa’s mother, apparently deceased and apparently the source of the recording. With the man, Ogawa helps film a script his daughter has written, employing many of the people we’ve met throughout the movie.
Sugita films this all in a tastefully mellow art house style, a smoothed-out, more accommodating and less alienating version of the minimalism that’s been one of the standard forms of art cinema for decades. Absent plot, the film relies almost entirely on Ogawa’s quiet performance for emotional impact, her big, expressive eyes to suggest all the hidden layers of sadness buried deep within this slow cinema Amélie. The film floats along on its mood of gentle melancholy, the interest in individual scenes based almost entirely on the actions on screen and not their connections to a wider plot or backstory, which Sugita never bothers to explain. There’s a scene where the class films a woman playing piano; there’s a scene where a young couple brings a newborn baby to the café; there’s a scene where Ogawa reads a story to a toddler. All of these are possibly interesting in themselves, or possibly not: the viewer will get out of it what they’re willing to put into it. This approach is nothing new to international cinema, of course. Indeed, There is a Stone had much the same conceit, its tension coming from the fact that we never knew exactly what its two characters were intending or thinking at any given moment. But Following the Sound is so close to being a conventional movie, like it was written as a straightforward narrative but then just went and deleted a couple of pages of exposition, morphing it into a different kind of movie entirely. That’s either what makes it interesting, a playful experiment in film form, or utterly conventional, just another festival film that rides the circuit for a few months and disappears, a waypoint on a potentially interesting filmmaker’s journey to someday making a really good movie. Mileage will certainly vary, but viewers who appreciate the former will find Following the Sounds’ course a pleasant one to follow.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 1.