Japan and the environment are back in the news again. Last week, the government there announced that it plans to release more than 1 million metric tons of treated radioactive water from its destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean starting in two years’ time. Not surprisingly, the move, which is expected to take decades to complete, is getting a lot of pushback from both local fishermen and Japan’s neighbours – particularly South Korea and China, who have serious concerns for their citizens’ health. Let’s face it: Japan has a gigantic black mark on its record for protecting the environment. From 1932 to 1968, a chemical factory located in the seaside town of Minamata owned by the Chisso Corporation was releasing methylmercury into its industrial wastewater. Although the company was well aware for decades that this highly toxic chemical was accumulating in the shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, neither they nor the Kumamoto prefectural government did much to stop the epidemic of mercury poisoning that was developing in the people who lived there. That all changed when photojournalist W. Eugene “Gene” Smith arrived on the scene in March 1971.
MINAMATA recounts the story of Smith’s time in the town and his efforts to bring the news of this public health disaster to the world through his photographs. Smith (played by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp) is invited to the town by Aileen Mioko (French-Japanese actress Minami/美波), a young translator who is a fan of Smith’s photographic work and believes that he is the best one to document the social damage that is taking place there. Smith, though, is not the man he used to be. Out of work, addicted to alcohol and amphetamines, possibly suffering from PTSD related to his coverage of WWII, separated from his wife and children and living in a dump of a flat in midtown Manhattan, he’s not interested in getting involved in this project, much less going to Japan. Aileen, however, is persistent and he finally agrees. Once in Minamata, he is touched by the resolve of the people there. Many of them are victims of the disease themselves – either personally or having to look after their children who are affected by it, some of them congenitally. The president of Chisso, however, is adamantly against admitting guilt or offering these people the compensation they need to live with the disease. Even after being beaten up by union thugs and seeing his darkroom trashed by the local police, Smith, Aileen, and local leaders Kiyoshi (Ryo Kase/加瀬 亮, BEL CANTO; SILENCE) and Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada/真田 広之, MORTAL KOMBAT (2021); AVENGERS: ENDGAME; LIFE; MR. HOLMES) press on and Smith’s photos finally make it into Life magazine, bringing worldwide attention to the disease and putting the necessary pressure on Chisso to finally be a responsible corporate neighbour.
There are some obvious similarities between MINAMATA and ERIN BROCKOVICH but MINAMATA unfortunately never reaches the same dramatic heights and, as artistically shot (by Benoît Delhomme, AT ETERNITY’S GATE; THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) as the film is, it doesn’t get audiences as emotionally invested as it needs to do to be effective. Although Depp gives his performance his all (though playing an alcoholic drug addict may be a little too on the nose), I have to think that the problem lies with director Andrew Levitas (LULLABY), who also co-wrote the screenplay based on the book of the same name by Aileen Mioko and Eugene Smith. The story is rather bland and it smacks of white saviour. It also doesn’t help that we don’t get to see Smith’s genius until the end of the movie. Sean O’Hagan of The Observer called Smith “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.” Smith tells us that he’s a genius in the film’s early scenes and we get a sense that he might just be based on his explosive interactions with Life‘s editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy, THEIR FINEST; ABOUT TIME) but it’s just not earned during the story. Erin Brockovich earned her win with her tenacity. Smith not so much or, if he did in real life, we don’t get to see or feel it here. In the end, MINIMATA is pretty forgettable but it shouldn’t be, especially when history may be repeated very soon.
MINIMATA opens in Hong Kong’s cinemas on April 22nd. It’s a shoulder-shrugger.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, April 23rd, 8:30 am HK time!
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