Hey, Oprah, empower this!
You’ll be forgiven for getting that uncomfortable feeling during the first half of LATE BLOOMER. The lead, Masakiyo Sumida, is disabled — he employs a motorized wheelchair to get around (although he apparently can walk for limited distances), uses a digital speech machine to communicate, and seemingly is forced to keep a twisted grin permanently plastered on his face.
First impression is that director Go Shibata is determined to take full, “Timmy 2000″ advantage of Sumida’s condition. The production is shot in a dingy, hand-held black and white video to better simulate a documentary format (an impression further enhanced by having Sumida perform under his real name). The scenario, meanwhile exploits our empathy towards the physically disabled, initially offering up sequences of Sumida socializing with his adoring, and mildly condescending, friends, then transitioning over into a romantic triangle between Sumida, his friend Take (Naozo Horita), and the young caregiver (Mari Torii) that they both have started crushing on. Making it all worse is that Sumida, with his contorted face and spastic motions, conveys little sense that he fully comprehends the drama he’s participating in.
Gradually, though, the warnings accumulate: Sumida programming his voice box to surreptitiously croak out, “I will kill you,” as his caregiver steps out of the room; Shibata serving up a disjointedly-cut sequence in which Sumida indulges in a wheelchair-bound tantrum; and, most pertinently, a moment when a friend frets over what may actually lurk behind that perpetual grin. By the time we get a last glimpse at Sumida — who, having discovered his own more… innovative, shall we say?… approach to vanquishing his sense of powerlessness, stands exposed and defiant before his stunned friends — we realize that both filmmaker and performer have conspired to put one over on us, that our prejudices have been manipulated to better comprehend the darker impulses of those we normally regard as harmless. It’s a disorienting and impressive trip, one that assures that you’ll no longer behold the person in the chair without considering the full dimension of his/her experience. Behold Timmy, and tremble — he ain’t livin’ a lie no more.
LATE BLOOMER (Tidepoint Pictures, 2004; 83 mins.) Directed by Go Shibata. Cast: Masakiyo Sumida; Mari Torii; Naozo Horita; Toshihisa Fukunaga.
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