Dir: Yoju Matsubayashi | Dragons and Tigers | Japan | 2015 | 47 mins
Many documentaries are bent on addressing harsh global issues. However, few will present them from a unique angle like Reflection — figuratively and literally.
Directed by Yoju Matsubayashi, the film covers life across 17 different cities around the world. The premise sounds as straightforward as any other documentary film. After watching the first few minutes, you will realize this is not the case.
For the majority of the film, shots are mainly focused on reflective surfaces like mirrors, windows and even street puddles. Even in brief reprieves from this pattern, they still have a presence in the backdrop (for example, the mirror-esque Hong Kong skyscrapers). The subjects framed within these surfaces vary, from forms of transportation to simply people going about their lives. They are not always present as reflections; sometimes, they are individuals seen through windows or posters behind glass panes.
Regardless, the film retains its namesake –- reflections remain integral to the shots. The emphasis on this is a refreshing way of portraying its subjects. It implies an almost literal sense of “self-reflection” for the living subjects framed within them and the viewer. This idea becomes appropriate as the broader themes of the film take shape.
As the film progresses, a recurring theme of globalization and urbanization becomes clear. Much of the locales presented are high-density cities with events and situations unique to them. These can span from the poverty of Varanasi to the bustling metropolitan life in Brussels. Intriguingly, none of these cities are presented in clear-cut segments. With the exception of a long segment focused on the 2014 Hong Kong protests, rarely will numerous consecutive shots come from the same city.
What remains common among them are certain subjects or themes. For example, a shot involving a starving horse in India progresses into a healthy one in Paris. Occasionally, audio of a specific city also spills over to the visuals of other cities. As the disgruntled youths of Hong Kong yell in protest, the film “echoes” their grievances through shots of passive pedestrians in Vancouver and other western cities.
Considering all these subjects and how they are presented, the film provides a unique visual commentary on globalization. Especially with its editing, it emphasizes social and urbanized problems across different communities solely through visuals. The unprejudiced intersection of footage between developing and developed countries immediately shows the stark contrast between these places. Simultaneously, it shows that they have more in common than just tall buildings.
Despite these significant themes, the film is very humble in its execution. Similar films like Samsara or Life In A Day provide more dramatic and arguably transcendental content to this grand topic. Admittedly, Reflection lacks this same documentary spectacle within those films that keeps a viewer engaged. Much of the footage is very static and even feels redundant at times. It poses a risk of being easily distracted by something else outside the film.
Yet, this subtlety is also the film’s strongest point. Rather than seduce and absorb you through spectacle, it puts you in deep thought. It does not forcibly shove its messages through an excess of stylized content. It leaves scenes as plain as possible, out in the open for you to interpret yourself. And again, the reflecting visual motifs are a refreshing technique that compliments the films themes.
Reflection is not the most groundbreaking documentary film to see. Yet, it effectively takes advantage of visual storytelling within the film medium. Most important of all, it prompts you to think about what it tells you, as any good documentary should.