Yah Chayka!


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Yah Chayka!
"It ends up packaging human existence as a photo album of tenuous associations and treacly banalities."

There is a human tendency, even a driving need, to construct order when confronted with chaos, and to impose sense on the empty noise all around. It is a principle that is reflected in both the form and the content of Yah Chayka!, an experimental feature co-written and co-directed by poet Shuntaro Tanikawa and one-time 'rock chick' Wakako Kaku. Here, the warmth of the human spirit is set against the vast emptiness of space and the infinity of death, and a tale of continuity and confluence is told in a welter of disjointed stills (as well as in the occasional moving image of light reflected on rippling water).

It is the end of winter. An artist (Teruyuki Kagawa), flush with own sense of failure and insignificance, heads off for an isolated woodland field to take an overdose of pills. As he lies on his back waiting to die, he notices a young woman (Machiko Ono) there using a telescope to look up in wonder at the very same stars that just leave him cold. He survives his suicide attempt, and over the next few weeks the woman reintroduces him to a thirst for life by showing him the interconnectedness of things, events, people and the cosmos, and by teaching him her catch-cry, "yah chayka!" (or "I am a seagull!"), used as a callsign by the USSR's first female cosmonaut.

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Conventional cinema tricks our brains into creating an illusion of temporal continuity and thematic coherence from a rapid succession of 25 stills per second, but Yah Chayka!, much like Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962) and Jonás Cuarón's Año Uña (2007), slows the frame rate down to remind us of the discontinuities that underlie cinema's supposedly fluid momentum. Much as the film's characters observe the light "emitted by stars hundreds of millions of years ago", viewers, too, are being invited to "transcend time and space" by forging connections between isolated images and arbitrary coincidences, and by reinvesting a slideshow with the more vivid qualities of a movie.

Here's the problem, though: if the film suggest that we are all lonely cosmonauts, searching for significance by the ancient light of dead stars, then perhaps we might prefer our travels to lead us to a truth less mawkish and, frankly, twee than what is on offer here. For although Yah Chayka! apparently intends to celebrate the miracle of life in an unforgiving universe, it ends up instead packaging human existence as a photo album of tenuous associations and treacly banalities – all underscored by a manipulatively sentimental soundtrack. The message of life-affirming renewal proves a rather thin narrative on which to hang so many pretty pictures, so that the film fails to command attention even for its relatively short duration. Yes, it will take you on a journey through time and space – but the experience is hardly edifying, enriching, or even interesting.

Reviewed on: 03 Jan 2009
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Poet and musician combine forces in an experimental film comprised of stills and music.

Director: Shuntaro Tanikawa, Wakako Kaku

Writer: Shuntaro Tanikawa, Wakako Kaku

Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa, Machiko Ono

Year: 2008

Runtime: 63 minutes

Country: Japan


London 2008

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