Gentle 'Blossoms' explores life and death

Doris Dörrie's "Cherry Blossoms" is both a tender tale of cultural crossings and a double portrait of grief. At its center is a long-married provincial German couple, each member of which must confront the other's death, one in prospect, the other in fact. The conceit that makes this reciprocity possible -- one of those symptom-free incurable diseases that so frequently befall movie characters -- may be hard to swallow, but once you accept it you can be charmed and touched by the way it plays out.

Rudi (Elmar Wepper) and Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) live in a picturesque Bavarian town. Two of their children live in Berlin, and another -- Trudi's favorite, a son named Klaus -- in Tokyo, where his mother has always dreamed of going. Instead, she and Rudi make a dutiful trip to visit their son Karl (Maximilian Brückner), who lives in bourgeois comfort with his wife and two children, and daughter, Karolin (Birgit Minichmayr), who lives in a more bohemian milieu with her lesbian lover, Franzi (Nadja Uhl).

I don't want to be coy, but I also don't want to give away the narrative surprises threaded through this gentle, sentimental tale. It will spoil nothing, however, to say that by the end of the film both parents have died and that each has contemplated the mixture of fulfillment and regret that has defined their relationship. The matter of mourning is handled with more delicacy than the intergenerational dimensions of the story, which are clumsy and overstated, especially when Klaus and Rudi, during the father's awkward visit to Japan, must make up for years of silence and misunderstanding.

The most affecting insights offered by "Cherry Blossoms" are also, in a way, the most banal. Travel to a foreign land can give you a fresh perspective on your life. Old habits die hard. A new friend can soothe your pain. In Rudi's case, friendship arrives in the person of Yu (Aya Irizuki), a waifish young Japanese woman who practices Butoh, the form of dance that Trudi also loves.

It sometimes seems as if Dörrie's intention was not just to direct a movie partly set in Japan, but to make a Japanese movie. Her attempts to balance emotional circumspection with an openness to feeling, and to infuse her images with a simple, unaffected beauty, evoke a Japanese tradition going back to Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu and flourishing in the work of Hirokazu Kore-eda. "Still Walking," Kore-eda's most recent film, shown last year in Toronto, shares with "Cherry Blossoms" an interest in how people grow old in a marriage and cope with loss.

But while Dörrie's film is exquisitely shot, its themes and metaphors are obvious rather than subtle, and its emotional rhythms -- rueful laughter punctuating the pathos -- would not be out of place in a television drama. Too much is explained: we can appreciate the transitory beauty of cherry blossoms without being told that they are "a symbol of impermanence," and the flies that serve a similar symbolic function don't need to buzz around quite so insistently. Still, there is something quiet and real in the way that this film contemplates the curious interplay of happiness and sorrow.

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