In explaining his 2003 minimalist experimentation, Five, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami posits that “we should set our imagination free about everything and, through conjecture, bring back the value that something has had and has lost”. Five, he says, is “the result of looking at such things”, to “extract the value hidden in objects”. Apparently, though, this process of extraction involves nothing more than an unflinching gaze, sustained long beyond that point at which information is first digested, so that it might perhaps become something else and take on other, interpretable meanings.
Though its director acknowledges that he might have called it “Watch Again” or “Look Well”, Five’s official subtitle is “Five Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu”, a tribute no less osbcure than Antichrist‘s was to Tarkovsky. Elaborating upon the homage, Kiarostami says the themes of Five are “not too far removed from Ozu’s cinema. Ozu’s cinema is kindly – he values natural interactions, natural relationships, the natural human.”
Comprising indeed of five long takes – the second and fifth of which are illusory, utilising dissolves to give the impression of being unmanipulated – Kiarostami’s film is a kind of stripped-down take-it-or-leave-it piece of pantheist naturalism, where everything within the frame exists as part of some eternal harmony of interrelation, with questions inevitably emerging meanwhile about off-screen space and how we might think about it.
In the first take, a piece of driftwood is bullied back and forth by a tide, before it splits in two, the larger body floating out of the picture as the camera finally becomes more curious about its smaller off-shoot; the second portrays a beachfront boulevard peopled by an increasing footfall; in the third, a pack of wild dogs nap by the water’s edge at dawn; the penultimate episode sees ducks pitter-pattering left-to-right and back again across frame; the final episode, comprising a third of its overall length, observes the surface of a moon-lit pond.
Five‘s temporal extremity is integral to the viewing experience: if particularly rapid-fire montage draws our attention to narrative manipulation, the utter lack of it here moves us more towards a more natural, elemental order. After the absorbing opening, whose visual and aural repetition lures one into a sort of semi-engaged hypnosis, the second episode provides visual distraction, in the form of humans walking left and right across frame, from the noticeable retreat of shadow across the railings in the background. Similarly, for the third episode, Kiarostami set his camera’s exposure manually, so that the scene becomes increasingly washed-out as daylight gradually approaches. Both episodes unfold slow enough so that their changes in lighting are imperceivable.
But in spite of this, its tribute to Ozu is troubling. Aspirations to a sort of thematic naturalism aside, it remains that Ozu was a master of cinematic storytelling with a whole set of recurrent preoccupations particular to Japanese society and human relations in general; furthermore, he is noted as one of the greats with regard to framing and choreography, both of which were consistently considered, often humorous and always meaningful.
In contrast, Kiarostami’s film seems to be a deliberate shift away from human life; it might provide a certain pleasantness in the experiential sense, but what has it to say about contemporary Iran or even the world? Not much might be the answer, and even the intention – indeed, in the making-of documentary for the film, Kiarostami proudly declares that “one can nap during this film”. Mildly amusing though such an announcement might be, it’s far removed from the sensitivity and artistic seriousness of his early features.
But in other ways, the film seems to be the logical conclusion of a cinema whose self-reflexivity was hinted at early on, and whose overwhelming formalism seemed inevitable. Kiarostami has spoken of the preciousness with which he values his own solitude, and this film seems to be the product of a self-prescribed regression, a turn towards the self. It’s a turn not for the better. Talking in epigrammatic riddles, he contradicts himself in interviews – or self-filmed monologues – by referring to the film as a narrative, but that at the same time it has no particular theme. Surely the discernibility of a work’s theme(s) is determined by the tangibility of its narrative… But this film seems neither here nor there.
Five seems arbitrarily stitched together, its episodes never quite gelling – that involving the ducks is incongruously funny, while the insufferable drone that precedes it is nothing more than a tastefully po-faced indication of its pandering to the festival circuit. The work is that of an auteur whom finds himself – through deserved critical acclaim for many serious films – in the culturally privileged position to turn away from life’s more pressing questions. As such, discussion prompted by the film is unavoidably framed by reference to its maker’s career. Beyond this, its curiosities are banal and its intellectual assumptions nothing new.