Ghost Writer, by Jack Fleischer
One of the great perks of this job is that I occasionally see movies from cultures I know nothing about. For example: Chile. I know it’s long and thin, and I know they speak Spanish. That’s about it. Now I know a little bit more thanks to Bonsai. Based on a book that defined a shift in Chilean artistic culture, the film is apparently as delicate, and poetic as its 90-page progenitor.
“Julio” (Diego Noguera) is a young man who exists in a sort of half-state. He has a romantic relationship with a neighbor that operates due to convenience more than passion. He’s a writer looking for work, and he applies for a job transcribing for a famous author. When that job falls through, instead of telling his tepid romantic partner, he gives her a lie. He tells her he got the job, and he begins to write his own story of a love from his past, a young woman named “Emilia” (Nathalia Galgani), and he passes it off to her as the famous author’s work.
While this is seems to be a love story, we’re constantly made to question just what it is that our hero is in love with. Is he missing the woman from his past? Is he missing an opportunity at true affection with the woman he’s with? Is he in love with some sort of idealized version of how his life should have been? Bonsai isn’t only a philosophical exercise; it’s also a study of how each character deals with the lies they live by.
This film has a lot in common with other philosophical Spanish language love stories, such as Julio Medem’s film Lovers of the Arctic Circle. Much like Lovers we pop back and forth in time, and have to deal with main characters who seem lost in their own stories, as much as they are lost in each other. Yet unlike Lovers, it is clear at the very beginning that there isn’t a happy ending waiting for the audience. Before the story even begins, we’re told, “In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die.”
Cute is how I would describe the film, even with it’s less than ebullient ending. The bonsai of the title is something our lead uses as an allegory for the writing process, and in many ways it seems like director Cristián Jiménez (Optical Illusions) has taken that same technique of trimming and restraint to make this film. Shots are simply framed, and they appear like quiet photographs. The music is sparse and gentle. Nothing about this film is grandiose or extravagant.
The acting is good, even though Julio’s face is sometimes almost cartoonishly “long” at times. In addition to that, his grandmother was a particularly entertaining bright spot, as are nearly all of the secondary characters.
An interesting meditation on various themes, at times I wonder if Bonsai doesn’t lack a certain level of audience engagement. There were times when I felt like I was missing something, and frankly I very well may have. I do wonder if my ignorance of Spanish and Chile, hampered my ability to connect, even though the story itself is universal.
Maybe I just need to read the book, get Rosetta Stone, and brush up on my Wikiedia research. Regardless, Bonsai has its delicate charm, and perhaps it’ll spur on a deeper exploration of Chilean culture in the process.