Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary Cutie and the Boxer shone at the Sundance Film Festival and it is not hard to see why. The film tells the story of the 40 year relationship of Japanese artist couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara in New York. Beautifully portrayed through a mixture of animated sequences, home videos and photographs and intimate fly on the wall footage, it is artistic montage in itself.
A prominent artist in New York in the 70s, Ushio Shinohara now at the age of 80 tries to keep his work in the commercial eye with hard physical graft and determination. A man of infinite energy, he continues to form large, obscure sculptures and create what he describes as action painting: affixing paint-slathered sponges onto boxing gloves and boxing the paint onto large canvasses. Standing on the side-lines is his wife Noriko who is an artist in her own right as she creates the delightful comic strip of Cutie and Bullie: caricatures of herself and her husband that tell the story of their relationship throughout the years.
Despite a suggestion that the story means to concentrate on Ushio and his life’s work, the overall tone is one of love, age, sacrifice, companionship and creativity with a real focus on Noriko and her struggle alongside her husband. With strong artistic ambition, she arrived in New York and soon met Ushio who wove a story of success and fortune, promising her she would shine as an artist if she stood by him. However, pregnancy, poverty and even alcoholism got in the way and they soon became the definition of artists living a life of hardship, as Ushio states: “Life is so hard and so fantastic – we are the ones suffering the most from art.”
With a childlike persona and maternal gentleness, Noriko has become overshadowed by Ushio over the years despite having clear talent of her own. As she says herself, “Ushio had always been my teacher but I always felt inferior to him. I was following him.” However it is clear now that she is fighting back, ready to ‘tame the bull’ and reaffirm her place in their relationship and as a commercial artist herself. But despite Ushio being exposed as a man a little full of himself, it is clear that theirs is a story of unspoken love that is unique and true and free from any real sense of resentment. They still battle with the simple things in life: paying the rent and water leaks in the ceiling of their modest, cluttered home but their silliness together and gentle bickering is sweet to watch. They may have a dysfunctional relationship in many ways but between them there is a commitment to art that endures.
The finale of Cutie and the Boxer is an endearing one with a colourful, paint sloshing, slow motion sequence played out in a warm light that really defines the stunning visual tone of the whole film. It is a finale fight between the couple, but with heart and you can’t help but think this would make some ideal couples therapy. This film is all the trials and emotions of one relationship splattered across a canvas and it is a pleasure to gaze at.
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