In his seminal book Transcendental Style in Film, critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader wrote of a Zen concept called mono no aware, which he translates to “a sympathy for sadness.” A more apt translation may be “the pathos of things” or “empathy toward things.” Regardless, it’s clear why Schrader applies the concept to Japanese master Ozu Yasujirō. Ozu, at least within the latter half of his career in the mid-20th century, sublimated his Zen practice into his films pictorially and thematically. He worked an awareness of the impermanence of the present and the metaphysical relationship between all objects through time into intimate family dramas set during and after the reconstruction of Japan.
Ozu’s style is instantly recognizable: elegantly designed middle-class homes stuffed with both traditional and modern touches; people purposefully framed within these environments, their conversations directed using an emotional and relational logic without regard to the emerged Western “rules” of filmmaking; and a stillness that nevertheless reverberates with, well, an empathy for all things. Some of these elements may be easily re-created, but the calibration of each is what makes Ozu’s style inimitable. Without explicit imitation of Ozu’s form or content, directors ranging from Pedro Costa to the Dardenne brothers have found other ways of expressing a kind of Zen transience.
Add Belgian director Bas Devos to this lineage now: His new film, Ghost Tropic, is miraculously aware of the inextricable link between the past and the present, between the looming industrial office building and the person who stands before it. The film’s lucid-dream/neo-realistic journey through nocturnal Brussels contains myriad other seemingly contradictory ideas that Devos delicately paints as – to admittedly mix Eastern philosophies here – yin and yang.
For Khadija (the graceful Saadia Bentaïeb), a hijab-donning immigrant, roaming the streets after missing her bus stop doesn’t make much sense. After all, she eventually hitches a ride with a reluctant gas-station clerk (Maaike Neuville), a choice that would have taken her to her modest apartment soon after her late-shift cleaning duties were over. Instead, she makes a few more detours. She insists on checking on the sick, unhoused man (Guy Dermul) she helped hospitalize earlier in the evening. Then, from a distance, she watches her daughter (Nora Dari) gleefully flirt with a neighborhood boy before going on to distract two police officers from rummaging around a homeless campsite.
Alongside Khadija’s long night’s journey into day, the film acts as a sparsely populated nighttime tour of the city’s reconstruction – its post-2016 bombing rubble and accumulation of gradual modernization through urban development and decay on full display. With Devos and cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove’s hypnotic and observational frames on grainy 16mm film stock, however, Ghost Tropic straddles a line between documentary and dreamy magical realism. An out-of-focus shot of a street-light-lined highway is cinematographic catnip, but it also realizes a bleary-eyed state of disconnect from a character’s setting.
A portrait of Brussels may be one of its functions, but the thrust of Ghost Tropic is its Odyssey-like fable chronicling an outsider’s need for human connection. Like Ozu, Devos’ filmic construction is more about understanding relationships between the individual, other people, and their environments rather than following traditional narrative modes. Within this schema, the director’s willingness to switch perspectives from person to person demonstrates this quest for empathy over story.
Although his characters’ specificities are present and palpable – making the tale all the more universal – Devos certainly could not have predicted how his plea for humanity would hit in 2020. Drawing comparisons to a global pandemic, threats of nationalism turning into fascism, and/or the murders of Black people in the streets to this immigrant’s experience may be glib, privileged, or mismatched, but the quest for understanding and empathy present here is also at the heart of those matters.
In the present real-world context, a scene of an after-work gathering of co-workers exchanging laughs and stories induces the same alienation Khadija often appears to feel. Something like an offer for a car ride from a stranger – a current impossibility – reads as the grandest of kind gestures. Khadija is haunted by her more comfortable past in her oceanside home along an African coast and by her efforts to assimilate in an uneasy present and unfamiliar territory. Such anxieties will be painfully recognizable to many viewers. With his latest, Devos has crafted a gracious and open-ended paean to resiliency, an empathetic outcry begging for compassion and understanding that, intentional or not, makes Ghost Tropic one of the most vital films of the present moment.