Why I chose Taste of Cherry:
Kiarostami is arguably the most famous name in the Iranian New Wave. Having seen The Wind Will Carry Us previously, I was eager to see some of his other works and Taste of Cherry seemed as good a place to start as any.
Why I chose Japón:
I had originally planned to review one of Alejandro Jodorosky's films, as they are mainly produced and made in Mexico. After watching Japón because I liked an image I saw of it online, I decided that I can sneak Jodorosky in under Chile as this film needs to be better known.
Iran has an exceptional and mature independant film industry, in spite (or perhaps because of) the draconian restrictions placed on it. Kiarostami's humanist style of cinema has thus far evaded the fate of politically-minded film-makers such as Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi (a different article entirely).
Carlos Reygadas is a director to watch in the coming years. Winning a number of prestigious awards such as the Cannes Jury prize for his films, he is beginning to make a name for himself among cinephiles. He is very much a disciple of Tarkovsky, making contemplative and beautiful films about human issues.
Why am I joining these two reviews together? I watched the films back-to-back with no prior knowledge of what they would be about. They turned out to have near enough identical stories; a man wants to commit suicide for an unknown reason and seeks help to carry it out. In Taste of Cherry, the help needed is in the form of someone to come and bury Mr. Baadi after he commits the deed, while in Japón, the un-named man seeks the peace and quiet of a small canyon-side village to ease his mind before he joins the choir invisible (or more likely the gnashing teeth painfully real).
Japón combines glacial pacing with some of the most beautiful images committed to celluloid, a slowly drifting camera and atmospheric music. This gives the film a hypnotic quality which feels surreal and magical. Conversely, Taste of Cherry is very firmly rooted in reality. The pacing is directly associated with the main character, instead of being used as a technique for inspiring contemplation as in Japón. This means there are slow sections of car rides around town, contrasted with dialog-heavy encounters with other characters.
Kiarostami seems hell-bent on keeping every facet of the story and character interpretable by the audience. He seems to observe the action rather than direct it (except for one moment which anyone who has seen the film will be able to identify). He does not tell us what to feel, nor does he tell us what the character is thinking or even what happens in the end. This is very admirable and viewers who look for films which provoke completely independant thought will find much to like. Reygadas is more concrete, giving insight into the mysterious man through dream sequences and more overtly suggestive scenes. However, saying that someone has made a film which is more objective than Kiarostami is like suggesting that it might rain in Scotland; Japón is still a very subtle film which will reward multiple-viewings.
The characters in both films are very similar, being both mysterious and passive. Mr. Baadi has an expressionless face for nearly all the film; is this a byproduct of Kiarostami's views on audience participation and projection, or is it an organic reflection of a man with no emotion left? Japón's man-with-no-name is slightly more reactive. He spends the majority of the film in a similar state to Mr. Baadi, but there are moments which break through his blank mask, such as his breakdown on the bed. It is arguable which is the most real character. I would say that Mr. Baadi seems more like a placeholder for the audience and that Kiarostami's adversity to strong objectively emotional moments prevents his character from breathing in the film world. Mr. Unnamed has the same passive quality, but his reactions to his surroundings seem less affected by the director's agenda, which is rather ironic when you think about it.
Although Taste of Cherry is undeniably more innovative and personal, it lacks the intense atmosphere and emotional impact of Japón. Many viewers may (and do) prefer the near-blank canvas which it allows the audience to project themselves onto, the ultra-subtlety prevents it from having the incredibly moving scenes present in its Mexican cousin. Ultimately, which you enjoy and prefer will come down to the person you are; how you empathise with people and your views on life. What I will say is that anyone who isn't blown away by the beauty of Japón's final scene is either incredibly jaded or has no poetry in their soul.
Also recommended from Iran and Mexico:
Other films by Kiarostami (Close Up, Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us)
Jafar Panahi (Offside, The White Balloon)
Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, A Little Princess)
Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth)