Sion Sono’s “The Whispering Star” – 2016 HKIFF Review

A contemplative science fiction film primarily shot in black and white, relying on extended observations of mundane routines, and featuring little dialogue may be hailed by some as an astute observation of the human existence in a world gradually being taken over by machines.  But because the auteur is Sion Sono, “The Whispering Star” (ひそひそ星) may polarize those who are used to the maverick director’s kinetic style, which typically relies on blood, guts and gore to pull a story through.

Indeed, “The Whispering Star” may be an acquired taste for some.  The best way to consume it is to forget Sono’s previous work and to see it as it is: an oeuvre that searches for personal meaning in a post-3/11 environment.  Shot with actual residents from the towns of Namie, Tomioka and Minamisoma in the Fukushima Prefecture – where temporary housing units exist to this day – “The Whispering Star” uses an original screenplay penned by Sono in 1990.

“This is a little poem I wrote about weathering memories,” Sono said in a statement published by the Hong Kong International Film Festival.  “I set the film in the distant future when there aren’t many humans left after wars, natural and human-made disasters.”

The film opens with a woman preparing tea over the course of a very long week to the tune of a leaky faucet.  She is eventually revealed to be a robot with artificial intelligence named Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), also known as Machine ID 722.  With the aid of a slightly cheeky talking navigator, Yoko has been drifting in a rented spaceship for more than 15 years, marking her days through audio diaries recorded on reels when she isn’t aimlessly doing chores or carrying out her main task: delivering 82 packages sent by human beings to fellow humans living on various planets.  Even though Yoko has 11 more years to do this, she isn’t too concerned if she is a few years too early or too late – she’s strictly following protocol.

The days pass, as does Yoko’s concept of time.  Although she doesn’t understand the consequences of delaying the delivery of these packages, she starts to become curious about the habits of humans and why they even feel emotional attachment to such items.  For some of the humans Yoko encounters, time seems to have stopped as well, and this sentiment is visually amplified with the surrounding Fukushima ruins of destroyed homes, shells of buildings, and other debris such as ships and overturned cars. Carefully shot and plotted, “The Whispering Star” shows the hauntingly beautiful devastation of a desolate landscape that may never return to normal, much like the dissipating human population depicted in the film.  But moreover, it is a warning on the price that may be paid if the convenience of technology continues to replace the desire for human connection.

“The Whispering Star” screens at the 2016 Hong Kong International Film Festival on Mon., Apr. 4, at 7 p.m.