Saturday, April 21, 2012

No Man is an Island...Although These Two Try

I'm watching movies faster than I can write...

Last week, I saw films on consecutive nights at the Landmark Embarcadero.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi; directed by Dave Gelb; documentary; Japanese with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
The Island President; directed by Jon Shenk; documentary; mostly English & some Maldivian with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website

The Island President is one of five 2012 Cinequest films in general release. The others being The Lady (Opening Night film), Deep Blue Sea (Closing Night film), Bully and L!fe Happens.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is part hagiography and part food porn. A profile of 85 year old Jiro Ono, sushi chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny restaurant in a Tokyo subway station which was awarded a prestigious 3 star Michelin review.

By objective standards, Jiro Ono is a workaholic and likely suffers from OCD. Jiro's life goals and the thrust of the film is simple: Jiro lives to make sushi. The title of the film is literal as Jiro recounts some of his past dreams.

In most other professions, Jiro would be an object of pity or derision. Can you imagine Jiro Dreams of Selling Insurance or Jiro Dreams of Database Queries? With director Dave Gelb's providing the visuals and Japanese restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto providing reverential commentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi holds Jiro up as the Michelangelo of sushi. Gelb has many slow motion shots of Jiro slicing through a piece of fatty tuna or of him delicately molding the sushi with his hands. Interspersed throughout are interviews with Yamamoto singing the praises of Jiro. Yamamoto's Greek chorus culminates at a dinner at the restaurant. As Jiro serves the sushi individually to each guest, Yamamoto narrates the preparation and expected enjoyment of the food.

It all seems outlandish...almost like a satire in the vein of A Mighty Wind or Best in Show. The aged Jiro stands stone-faced and impassive as he scrutinizes the diners for their subtlest reactions so he can improve his sushi. As one of his sons mentions, it can be quite intimidating to dine at Sukiyabashi Jiro - reservations must be made months in advance, only a prix fixe menu, minimum price is several hundred dollars, seating is assigned...and all the while, Jiro watches you intently with a stoic look on his face.

Still, Jiro is not a sushi-making cyborg. He has two sons and presumably a wife (or late wife) whom we never see and nary a mention. Indeed, the secondary focus of the film is on Yoshikazu Ono, Jiro's eldest son who serves as adjutant to his father and heir apparent Sukiyabashi Jiro. A miserable fate if ever there was one. As commented upon in the film, when Jiro finally steps down, Yoshikazu will have to make sushi twice as good to be considered equal to his father.

The scenes where Yoshikazu prowls the fish markets and shares his thoughts give a fleeting glimpse of his father in reflection. Wanting to be a jet pilot or race car driver, Yoshikazu (and his brother) were pressed into service for the family business immediately after high school. Food critic Yamamoto makes a startling revelation when he mentions that it was Yoshikazu who prepared the sushi when Michelin reviewed the restaurant. Later, Jiro admits that 90% of the sushi quality is completed when he serves the food. His son has already selected the choicest cuts of fish, his staff has already cooked the rice under high pressure and massaged the octopus for 50 minutes (and no, that's not a euphemism) and most importantly, Jiro's reputation has already preceded him.

Whatever excesses Gelb & Yamamoto apply to Jiro is in contrast to the man. His son drives a BMW but Jiro is only seen walking. Jiro is least the character presented on screen. As a former protégé alludes to, Jiro can be a tough man to work for...even more so if he is your father. This relationship between Jiro and his sons would have fleshed out the man but it wasn't a very Japanese thing to discuss and would have shifted attention away from the sushi master towards a flawed man.

Ultimately, the film is successful but oddly, I was left with neither a desire to make the pilgrimage to Sukiyabashi Jiro nor much empathy for the man.


The Island President is a film with startling access to the Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, an island nation consisting of over 1,100 islands in the Indian Ocean. Nasheed had been a political activist who opposed the policies of President Gayoom, the president who preceded him and had won six consecutive presidential elections. Despite being imprisoned and tortured, upon displacing the president who had ruled for 30 years, Nasheed decided the most urgent issue facing his nation was the threat of global warming and the catastrophic impacts rising sea levels would have on his nation which average 1.5 meters above sea level.

Most of the film follows Nasheed as he prepares for and attends the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. With remarkable access to a head of state, the filmmakers document Nasheed's preparations and negotiations with his own staff and world leaders as he tries to insert language into the conference resolution establishing CO2 emissions and temperature increase limits. Along the way, Nasheed becomes something of a media sensation. Fluent in English, educated in Europe and media saavy, Nasheed makes global warming a cause célèbre by framing the issue as a matter of life and death for his nation.

With surprising but limited success at COP15, Nasheed seems poised to usher in a new era for the Maldives. Unfortunately, we learn in the epilogue that Nasheed resigned from office in February 2012 to avoid conflict with a military faction sympathetic to former President Gayoom. Not exactly surprising given some of the chilling stories told by Nasheed and his colleagues about their imprisonment.

The Island President is a fascinating look at the life of a Third World leader as he navigates the tricky waters of international politics. The film is even more poignant as it appears that Nasheed focused on international policies to the detriment of shoring up domestic security and the rule of law in the Maldives.

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