Still Walking (U)

Shades of Ozu colour this tender family portrait

Two pieces of advice regarding Still Walking, the new film from Hirokazu Kore-eda. First, be sure to see it. Second, be sure to eat before you do. Still Cooking might have been more apt a title; from the opening close-ups of carrot and daikon (a limb-like oriental radish) being sliced and the rinsing and salting of gleaming mung beans, the preparation and consumption of food is ceaseless. Just when you think supplies must be exhausted, a bowl of watermelon or a tray of sushi will be produced from nowhere, or someone will say: "Maybe I'll fix a snack." (It's charming that the actors have been directed to deliver some of their dialogue through stuffed mouths.) Add a soundtrack of soft voices, laughter and gently plucked acoustic guitar and you can no longer depend on Dolby bombast to disguise a growling stomach, as you can when watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Kore-eda is best known for his 1998 film After Life, which imagined a way station where the recently deceased go to finalise one memory that they want to retain for eternity. The director's masterstroke was to set the action in an empty school; this keen taste for the intimate and parochial must be one of the reasons his picture retains its buoyancy while Wim Wenders's similar but more self-consciously profound Wings of Desire feels earthbound.

Still Walking is even better. Once again, Kore-eda nurtures expansive drama from a modest setting. This is a wide-reaching film of tiny gestures, barely perceptible tensions and unnoticed heartbreak, based around that dependably fraught ritual, the family get-together. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), an art restorer who is between jobs, is taking his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), and her young son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), to the home of his elderly parents. On the surface, all is tranquillity and smiles. But Ryota, suspecting he has been second best to his family since the death of his brother, Junpei, 12 years earlier, begrudges the visit. And both his mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and his father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), a retired doctor, have been grumbling privately over his choice of a widow as a bride. "He didn't have to go for a used model," snipes Toshiko in a warm, melodious voice that only intensifies the poison of the sentiment.

The emphasis is on the friction between the familiar and the alien, as it is for many of us when we return home. Conversation turns to how the neighbourhood has changed but the main difference now is that Toshiko and Kyohei are older and frailer. Ryota notices a handrail in the bathroom, installed after his father suffered a fall. Ryota's sister, Chinami (You), wants to move her own family into the house to be of greater help to her parents, but Toshiko is politely resistant. Old tensions start to emerge. It transpires that Junpei was to have followed in his father's footsteps as a doctor; Kyohei is sore that Ryota didn't harbour the same ambition. Toshiko has her own beef with Kyohei, which is aired during an interlude of apparent nostalgia. But Kore-eda never allows these grievances to erupt; they sizzle in the background like Toshi­ko's slow-cooking sweetcorn tempura.

Although it feels unfair to single out any of the uniformly eloquent performances, Kirin Kiki and Yui Natsukawa are especially remarkable in a devastating exchange between mother and daughter-in-law (on the subject of having children). Of course, the real star is Kore-eda's camera, which seems to represent the eyes of Junpei looking on. It watches from a discreet distance as Kyohei staggers down the steep steps to the ocean where his son drowned and joins Ryota and Toshiko in the hilltop cemetery overlooking the suburbs.

The picture's forebear in theme and restraint is Ozu's 1953 film Tokyo Story (currently on rerelease), an incomparably rich analysis of parent/child relations. As a double bill, that melancholy one-two could put the grizzliest tough guy on the canvas. So when I open my dream cinema, I'll put Still Walking on the bill with Gianni di Gregorio's recent Mid-August Lunch, a more uplifting picture exploring the intermingling of family and food, or Italian-american, Martin Scorsese's adoring hymn to his parents and his mother's cooking. Needless to say, dinner will be served beforehand.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power