The following review of Solrun Hoaas’ sole feature, Aya (1990), is republished with the kind permission of the author and Tina Kaufman, then editor of the journal in which this article first appeared – Filmnews (October 1991).
Aya (1990), the debut feature for writer/director Solrun Hoaas, is a richly textured portrait of a young Japanese woman (played by Eri Ishida) in the Australia of the fifties and sixties. Constructed around a series of vignettes from her life (spanning two decades and starting with Aya newly arrived and recently married), the film – which follows her, her husband Frank (Nicholas Eadie), and ex-army member of the Australian forces deployed in postwar Japan and their mutual friend Mac (Chris Haywood) – is an engaging, complex exploration of persona strength and cultural differences.
The opening sequence at a local fete, paralleling the woodchop competition with Aya’s contribution of a performance of the Japanese tea ceremony, not only alludes to many of the film’s central concerns but also offers the first insight into the labyrinth of contradictory expectations she will have to face in her relationship with Frank. For him her femininity, as well as her rituals, is exotic. Yet, although he quietly pressures for assimilation (not eating the food she prepares, not wanting their son to be bilingual), he later complains that she never wears her kimono – an emblem of her difference/desirability? – any more.
Hoaas’ concerns surrounding notions of space (both how she fills the frame and as a metaphor – cultural, social, domestic, private) dominates the deceptively simple filmic style of Aya. A style that rejects overt explanations and instead creates for the audience an ever-developing sense of understanding, built on delicate fragments of intensely intimate visual detail and a script that gives as much weight to what remains unsaid between characters as to what they manage to convey of their emotional needs and confusion.
The deftly handled narrative is strung with vibrant and poignantly telling images: Frank’s warning drawings of indigenous creepy-crawlies papering the outhouse wall; the vividly red flying fish kit anchored to the Hills Hoist in a suburban sunbleached breeze. A wry humour is at work within the composition of many of the shots; the passing of the years signified by a static close-up of a progression of rapidly changing calendars, this time ornately Japanese, is wittily reminiscent of B-grade Hollywood techniques of the period, while the low to the ground camera angles utilised in one scene in the sukiyaki restaurant where Aya works is, it would seem, a self-conscious nod towards Japanese cinema, in particular Ozu.
For me Aya is Solrun Hoaas’ tour-de-force filmmaking achievement, taking pride of place in a body of work, which includes experimental and documentary forms, that is a consistently rewarding cinematic experience.
– Amree Hewitt, “Aya”, Filmnews vol. 21, no. 9, October 1991, p. 12.
Revisiting/reviewing a film almost 20 years after one first saw it can be a dislocating experience. When Aya opened Australian in late 1991, (arthouse) cinemas were screening the likes of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof (1991), Diane Kurys’ La Baule-les-Pins (C’est la vie, 1990), Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1991), Michael Apted’s 35 Up (1991), and Paul Cox’s A Woman’s Tale (1991). American films such as Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991) and Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991) were breaking new genre ground and other Australian films of the previous nine or ten months, such as Nirvana Street Murder (Aleksi Vellis, 1991) and Death in Brunswick (John Ruane, 1991), had newspaper critics talking of “non-Anglo” Australian characters finally making it onto our cinema screens and reflecting more accurately (more unselfconsciously?) our multicultural country.
Aya generally seems to have been seen, at the time, as predominately a more classical exploration of the migrant experience (an addition to ’80s films like Sophia Turkiewicz’s Silver City, 1984). Indeed with its storyline involving a Japanese bride trying to make a life with her Australian husband in post-World War II Melbourne, it slips readily into such a framework. And yet, the film was, and still is (even more so on reflection), much more than that. Aya is certainly a film about the pressures and sacrifices of “assimilation” (as opposed to integration). However, it is not simply about those pressures that arise from culture and race but also changing expectations and notions of masculinity, relationships between men and women, parents and their children: What to give up or give in to and what to hold onto for yourself, are questions at the heart of the film.
What was compelling for me on my first viewing of Aya – its challenging formal qualities (episodic and narratively elliptical), distillation of the image, and embrace of intimate detail – is still striking, and despite what grates (performances from some of the minor cast members, uneven tone and dated musical underpinning of scenes) the film, at its core, now feels like an even more complex emotional journey. Much of this feeling emanates from the casual, veiled intensity of the wonderful Nicholas Eadie, the quiet isolation captured by Eri Ishida as Aya, and the understated élan of Chris Haywood. Yet this feeling also arises from a resolute directorial style that eschews the lures of melodrama.
Aya won the CICAE prize at the Torino International Film Festival, garnered the Asia Pacific Film Festival’s Best Actress award for Ishida, screened in over 14 international festivals, and was nominated for six AFI Awards including Best Actress. Writer-director Hoaas never got the opportunity to make another fiction feature film. The difficult paths of both commercial and government funding that need to come together to support creative feature projects never converged again for this filmmaker despite her hard work, passion and strong script ideas. It feels like a lost opportunity not to be able to have seen this director build and refine her craft in the form of feature film storytelling, however Aya still stands as her cinematic touchstone and a keenly felt indicator of what might have been.
– Amree Hewitt, February 2010