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  Woman of the Dunes Just Deserts
Year: 1964
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Stars: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida, Hiroko Ito, Koji Mitsui, Sen Yano, Kinzo Sekiguchi, Kiyohiko Ichiha, Hiroyuki Nishimoto, Tamutsu Tamura
Genre: Drama, Sex, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: There aren't many films quite as unnerving as Woman of the Dunes – part allegory, part surreal nightmare, part twisted love story, Hiroshi Teshigahara's landmark film does for sand what Jaws did for water. The abrasive, screeching music that opens the film sets the tone straight away, as a lone man (Eiji Okada), an entomologist studying butterflies in the desert, strides across a series of undulating dunes. Having missed his train back to the city, he accepts the offer of a bed for the night from a group of local villagers; this bed is in a hut accessed by a rope ladder and inhabited by a lone woman (Kyoko Kishida).

The next morning the man discovers that the hut sits in a large hole in the desert, that the crumbing sand walls cannot be scaled and that the rope ladder has been removed. He is completely trapped, and is told by the woman that she needs him to help shovel sand every night to stop the house from being swallowed by the desert - if he refuses, the villagers will deny them food and water.

Teshigahara isn't interested in answering the many questions that the film naturally throws up - who are these villagers and what does the rest of their community look like? What happened to the other 'guests' that the woman once had? Why does no one come looking for the man? Like the trapped entomologist himself, we have to accept this nightmarish situation as it is. Less than a quarter of the film is set outside of the hole, and an incredible feeling of claustrophobia is generated as the man's initial attempts to escape prove fruitless, and his refusal to dig the sand at night leave him slowly dying of thirst. He has no choice but to start digging, and the woman's blind acceptance of this life – back-breaking work for the whim of the cackling villagers who appear periodically at the top of the hole – proves just as exasperating as the labour itself.

Things get even weirder when the man's frustration and the woman's loneliness lead them into a sexual relationship, adding an undeniable erotic charge to an already fraught living arrangement. Nothing explicit is shown, but the heat and passion is vividly realised by Okada and Kishida. She becomes dependent on him, half fascinated by his Tokyo-based life beyond the desert, and half terrified that he will find a way to escape and she will wake up one morning alone again. The film's most disturbing sequence sees the villagers agree to the man's request that he be allowed to see the ocean once a day, on the condition that he fucks the woman in the hole while they look on. The man's desperation to see life beyond his desert prison is such that he attempts to rape her, while the villagers, wearing masks and banging on a variety of drums, gaze on in lascivious delight.

Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography is often astonishing, the shadows and textures of the shifting sands captured in beautiful crisp monochrome, while Teshigahara opts for a handheld camera to document the more intimate moments within the hut. Woman of the Dunes ends on an ambiguous, incomplete note, both haunting and strangely moving; like a vivid dream, this one lingers long after it is over.

Aka: Suna No Onna, Woman in the Dunes
Reviewer: Daniel Auty


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Hiroshi Teshigahara  (1927 - 2001)

Japanese director with a background in flower arranging and fine art, whose second film, the surreal Woman of the Dunes, proved an international success in 1964 and won two Oscar nominations as well as the Grand Jury prize at Cannes. Teshigahara made his debut three years earlier with the strange satire Pitfall, and directed a further four films, including the detective story The Ruined Map, before retiring in the early seventies to concentrate on ceramics and experimental film-making. He returned to directing in 1989 with the period drama Rikyu, while his final film was 1992’s Goh-hime. Teshigahara died of leukemia in 2001.

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