"Woman in the Dunes" Looks at Communism

A "strong, abstract work of modern art," a prime example of "political ideology integrated into literature," and filmed with "stunning originality, rigor and technical brilliance."
These are just some of the descriptions used by Santa Monica College Cinema Professor Josh Kanin, as he opened the third in a series of four movies screened in conjunction with SMC's "Literature to Film" event.
Screened Friday night at SMC, "Woman in the Dunes" is a Cannes Special Jury Prize-winning film. Written by acclaimed Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara and based on the book by avant-garde novelist, playwright and Marxist intellectual, Kobo Abe, the film also marked Abe's debut as screenwriter.
A surreal, eerie story that questions existence, "Woman in the Dunes" is filmed in a dreamlike manner with haunting refrains of violins that propels the film into the realm of nightmares - strangely fitting when the story unfurls itself.
An entomologist misses his bus back to the city while collecting insects by a seaside / desert region at an unnamed province in Japan. He is offered overnight lodging in a house at the bottom of a sand dune by some local villagers, an offer that he takes up enthusiastically.
Sharing the residence is a widow, whose primary duty appears to be shoveling sand at night to keep the village from being engulfed by the moving sand dunes. She does this in exchange for simple necessities like food and water, all of which are let down to her using a bucket on a rope by the villagers.
Scenes as this touch on a Marxist viewpoint concerning society, where the everyday working person toils through existence just to meet their basic needs for survival while at the same time advancing a faceless, cruel collective. An illustration of the struggle between classes perhaps.
Our hero awakens the next morning to find that he is trapped in the house when his only means of scaling the dune - a rope ladder - is removed by the villagers.
He later finds out that he has been trapped for the sole purpose of providing the woman assistance in her nightly digging.
The sense of helplessness and claustrophobia is further pronounced in the film when the scene where a wasp is struggling to climb out of a clear, glass bowl, which in turn precedes the scene of our hero helplessly trying to climb a wall of loose, falling sand.
The film continues as our hero adapts, rejects and ultimately succumbs to his fate, another implied condition of humanity.
Symbolism abounds throughout the film: the entomologist, the topographical view of dunes resembling a cross-sectioned beehive, the wasp. Even the musical score at certain points of the film rises to a climax where the violins almost take the buzz of insects - in reference to a hive mentality. It is truly a Kafkaesque enterprise.
All in all, "Woman in the Dunes" is a powerful and moving adaptation of Abe's literary classic and is a gem in the crown of Asian cinema. The next "Literature to Film" installation will be June 3.