by Jason Suzuki
Ozu's last film and Gina Price-Bythewood's latest, An Autumn Afternoon (1962) and Beyond the Lights (2014) make for an interesting pair to watch back to back. Each about the pressure to conform to the expectations of others and how this is connected to the relationship between parent and child. In An Autumn Afternoon Chishu Ryu once again plays a widowed father who at the suggestion of others feels the need to marry off his daughter (Shima Iwashita). A plot line similar to other Ozu films most notably Late Spring (1949) thirteen years earlier. Beyond the Lights stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni Jean, an up and coming pop star with a manager mom (Minnie Driver). Noni is on the verge of super stardom before her album has even dropped. The emptiness of the pop world causes her to try and fall from her hotel balcony where she is saved by police officer Kaz (Nate Parker). From there a romance ensues that gets Noni back to the music she really wants to make.
From these two expectations: to marry off your daughter and to be an empty, yet successful, sex symbol at the cost of your authenticity, both films allow for other side plots to spring up from which they can draw parallels from. One of the OLs at Hirayama's (Chishu Ryu) workplace eventually gets engaged, something Hirayama sees the progression of her life in the small conversations they have at work. He encounters another father/daughter relationship with his washed up professor "The Gourd" whose daughter reluctantly still has to slum it with him, providing his main source of care. Hirayama sees both possibilities for his daughter. Nate Parker's character in Beyond the Lights has political ambitions. His father (Danny Glover), a parallel to Noni's mother who helped her get where she is, gets him an audience with important figures in his community. Kaz becomes a mirror of Noni where he starts to realize the importance of appearance and networking; essentially the importance of masks, something that Noni has already realized and is drowning in.
Being admittedly super late to the Beyond the Lights party I was still surprised at how laid back the feel of the film was making all the moments where Noni's current musical output seem harsh and intrusive, perfectly capturing her feelings towards the music that's made her famous. For essentially being a melodrama, the film only allows emotional highs when it makes sense. Ozu never was a fan of melodrama (although Tokyo Twilight, one of his most melodramatic films. is one of my favorites) and it seems like Gina Price-Bythewood seems to be a kindred spirit, the only thing that's missing is a strict adherence to a very specific film form.
It's not until these characters have succumbed to expectations that important realizations are made. Hirayama seems to take for granted all that Michiko does for him and his other live-in son. It's not until she's gone that he's bothered by it, continually returning to the visual of her empty room. Noni's mother and Kaz's father eventually let up, their varying levels of trying to decide their children's future was always rooted in wanting the best for them. Something that is the root of Hirayama conforming to societal norms. Ozu doesn't condemn the characters but the pressures, something seen in many of his stories: Equinox Flower comes to mind. Shin Saburi's character had his marriage arranged and he wants the same for his own daughter but when it comes to another young woman he says to follow the heart. Price-Bythewood doesn't condemn Glover or Driver even when she seems to come close as Noni's mom seems to do whatever it takes to ignore her daughter's suicide attempt.
So if you're looking for an pair where the similarities are not on the surface level but complement each other in terms of direction and the ways in which similar ideas are handled, these two films will do just that.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.