My rundown of the 2013 Sundance US Documentary Competition continues with Zachary Heinzerling’s directorial debut: CUTIE AND THE BOXER, the decades-long story of the personal and professional struggles of a married pair of Japanese artists in NYC.
Sundance Program Description:
Zachary Heinzerling’s remarkable debut is an indelible portrait of art, companionship, and the 40-year love story between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Japanese artists who meet and marry in New York in the early 1970s. Surviving decades of hardship, resentment, financial anxiety, thwarted aspirations, and Ushio’s chronic alcoholism, they are a study in artistic symbiosis.
Now eighty years old and finally sober, Ushio is preparing a joint exhibit with Noriko, yet he still treats her as a de facto assistant. Ushio’s mixed-media sculptures and “boxing” paintings, infused with chaotic energy, have brought notoriety—but rarely income. Meanwhile, Noriko, emerging from her husband’s shadow, creates intimate comic-styled watercolor and ink drawings that tell the story—a muted empowerment fantasy—of their alter egos, Cutie and Bullie.
Skillfully photographed and crafted, CUTIE AND THE BOXER moves fluidly between past and present, employing a vérité aesthetic, archival footage, and beautifully animated sequences of Noriko’s drawings. Heinzerling seamlessly inhabits their space, observing its rhythms and textures, their complex dynamic, and the creative vitality that fuels their lives.
While this project marks Heinzerling’s directorial debut, he has previously associate produced a number of sports-focused HBO docs, and was an assistant editor on Sundance alum PETER AND VANDY (2009). Producer Sierra Pettengill’s other credits include associate producing for THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, and is wrapping up her own directorial debut, TOWN HALL, which Heinzerling shot, as he did this film. Producer Patrick Burns is a journalist and photographer with a background in Japanese art and culture. Serving as executive producers are former acquisitions executive turned producer Kiki Miyake and veteran producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, THE DARJEELING LIMITED), whose past Sundance credits include IRON JAWED ANGELS (2004), NORMAL (2003), HYSTERICAL BLINDNESS (2002), MISSISSIPPI MASALA (1992), THE KILL OFF (1990), and LONGTIME COMPANION (1989).
Why You Should Watch:
Heinzerling beautifully captures his likeable characters with an assured and intimate sense of storytelling that reveals the sum of four decades of a challenging, yet affectionate, relationship. Noriko, in particular, takes the opportunity of the film to fully blossom as an artist in her own right. The steps she takes to assert her own creative voice after years in the background bring a joyful air to the entire viewing experience. As a result, the film becomes more than just an excellently realized portrait of struggling artists, but also a quiet revelation about marriage and compromise.
For more information and to keep updated on the film, visit its website and Facebook page. For Heinzerling’s thoughts on the film, check out his Meet the Artists profile for Sundance and his Indiewire interview. For screening dates and times at Sundance, click the link in the first paragraph.