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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Oscar-Nominated Documentary, 'Cutie and the Boxer,' is a Unique Love Story About Two Individuals Struggling to be Heard Through Their Art

By its title alone, Oscar-nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer gives off a sweet yet ineffable flavor, something that tells you nothing and everything about it all at once. That's because the film itself never relies on the idea of intention. Despite the typical nature of its genre that makes it prone to agenda, the story flows like a narrative--one that follows two people bound to each other by their shared love of art.

But it's not your typical love story. There are no overtly romantic elements where the characters show affection or create amorous paintings inspired by their love. Rather, the documentary takes a wider look at the devotion between Japanese husband and wife artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara amid their own personal struggles to express themselves artistically and with each other, be accepted in the American art world, and pay for their lifestyle on a perpetually shoestring budget.

Using the Shinoharas' beautiful relationship as a backdrop, writer/director Zachary Heinzerling paints a
picture of what it means to be an immigrant exploring your purpose in America (Ushio migrated from Tokyo to the States in 1969 on a grant from the John D. Rockefeller the third fund). The 81-year-old's story shows the reality of a starving artist who's more comfortable expressing himself with a bucket of paint as a Neo-Dadaist (similar to a "junk artist") than assimilating to the confines of American conventionality. Through Heinzerling's direction, we see Ushio as a husband and father at home speaking in his native tongue with his wife. You can tell that the two have been together so long that words aren't even necessary for their mutual understanding and respect for one another. They joke and regard each other more like friends and partners than as a married couple, roommates who need to be together to cut back on their expensive lower Manhattan rent.

However, in one scene we see another side of Ushio, crumbling under the weight of his own talent and expectations, becoming emotional at a table filled with friends one evening. We learn how his mild successes compounded by his overwhelming passion can sometimes get the best of him. It's a split second moment in the film which then shifts back to where Ushio is most fulfilled--approaching his art with the energy of a five-year-old, constantly inspired by dreams bigger than him.

Meanwhile, we discover that his other half, Noriko, 22 years his junior, is the more grounded of the two. Though she keeps the house together and makes sure that their bills pile is at least properly dusted once a month, she has a larger story to tell. We can't be sure but we're led to believe that this is her first time really expressing it. Except, she doesn't really talk about it; it's depicted in her drawings. Where Ushio is more aggressive in his approach to his art as a boxing painter detailing the undetailed enclaves of American culture, Noriko is more personal. Her drawings add another layer to the film as they take on a new life as animations, showing us her point of view of being known simply as Noriko's wife, when her own talent and dreams are overshadowed by his. She illustrates her 40-year marriage to Ushio, her own migration to America from  Tokyo and how she fell in love with her future husband and his talent in a way that had gone utterly unheard until now.

In fact, there's very little information about Noriko on the Internet at all, not without the accompaniment of her husband or this film. So this doc is her coming out, of sorts, a way for her vision across in the most subtle way. With the help of Heinzerling's unique tone, we see the story of two artists--not simply an artist and his wife.

That's what's so great about Cutie and the Boxer. It's a love story that presents both people in the relationship, fully realized. Though their love for each other is genuine and very much illuminated in the film, we see a whole new side to the pair as individuals dealing with their own separate challenges. Perhaps even more profound, we get to see the American dream seen from the eyes of two unique artists. Charming, funny with a particular fondness that is moving to watch, it is not to be missed.

Watch the trailer:

Rating: A (***** out of *****)


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