Hot Docs Review: ‘Zero’

Kazuhiro Soda revisits a character from his 2008 film ‘Mental’

5 mins read

(Japan, 128 min.)
Dir. Kazuhiro Soda
Programme: World Showcase

12 years ago, director Kazuhiro Soda made a film that took you deep into the Chorale Okayama Clinic, a poor people’s mental health facility. In Mental, Soda revealed that his intention was to part the curtain blocking the world of the mentally ill from view so that the “normal world” could see what the abnormal world was really like. The film’s unintentional hero, visiting psychiatrist Dr. Masatomo Yamamoto, was shown interacting with the patients in a quietly effective manner.

As Zero begins, Dr. Yamamoto is 82 years old and about to give up his practice. Soda returns to document the now white-haired Dr. Yamamoto as he has his final sessions with his patients before retiring to live out his final years with his frail and ageing wife.

In the first half of the film, Dr. Yamamoto sees his patients for the last time. Soda’s camera captures the smallest movements and gestures—the anxieties, the silences, the sadness and the support. It quickly becomes clear that his patients are struggling to accept the loss of the man they’ve depended on for many years. Patients ask, “what will happen to me?”, “Can I still see you in any way?” Dr. Yamamoto, who comes across as more of a patient listener than an expert authority figure, hears what they have to say but maintains a kind firmness. He assures them that he won’t be a stranger, but other younger doctors will take over his practice. He also thanks them. Yamamoto tells one, “my life is richer because of you.”

When one patient asks Dr. Yamamoto what is next for him, the film shifts to his relationship with Yoshiko, his wife, who in Mental kept the domestic and professional wheels turning smoothly. Now, her once-sharp mind is riddled by dementia. Though still mobile, Yoshika is almost helpless and Yamamoto has become her primary caregiver.

Soda spends an evening with the couple, where Yamamoto makes tea, not without struggling physically himself, orders sushi and otherwise does what his wife did for all those years. At one point, Yoshiko finds an older photo of the couple and shows it to Soda. The director learns they met in high school, and Yoshiko tells him with a smile that her first impression of her future husband was “his grades were not good.” Dr. Yamamoto nods along and laughs at this. The bond of love between them is clearly still strong.

And so, Zero somehow becomes a film about their marriage, with Yoshiko in the foreground. Soda’s compassionate lens captures the Yamamotos’ visit to an old friend, who excitedly talks about how she and Yoshiko enjoyed kabuki, classical music and playing the stock market. Soda’s camera closely lingers on the frail Yoshiko, as flashbacks to a her as a younger sharper woman are intercut. As the visit ends, the film’s final scene begins.

Dr. Yamamoto and Yoshiko walk down a path, where he takes her hand and supports her as they make their way to his parents’ and grandparents’ graves. Yamamoto proceeds to clean their headstones with care, offers food and ends the visit with a prayer. Once again, he asks Yoshiko to take his hand and guides her back. She tells him to watch his step.

Hand in hand, they care for one another, and Soda’s lens is there to capture it all⎯raw, real and emotional, never overly-sentimental.

Zero screens at Hot Docs’ online festival.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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