Review of Ballad at SBIFF

Brilliantly Produced, Funny, and Charming Japanese Time-Travel Film Is Perfect for All Ages

From a film fan’s perspective, the biggest beef one can have with SBIFF 2010’s catalogue of movies is that the descriptions aren’t thorough enough. With only about one sentence describing any given flick, you’re rarely sure of whether your next movie is going to be a drama, a comedy, a sci-fi fantasy, or something in between. Of course, this dwindled-down description might also be a good thing, in that your festival experience becomes a mysterious journey, traveling down paths that could take you anywhere. And yes, a brief interaction with Google could solve all these problems, but there’s not a lot of time to make decisions in between screenings — plus, there’s a great deal of satisfaction when you’re happily surprised by a gem, as if you somehow stumbled upon the treasure all by yourself.

For instance, coming into the Japanese film Ballad, I knew only that it was “based on an award-winning Crayon Shin-chan animated movie from 2002, a young boy must time travel to the Sengoku period and shape destiny.” Casting aside the fact that most of that sentence makes little sense to the average film-goer (what’s Crayon Shin-chan mean?) — and is actually incorrect, in that the boy travels to the Tensho period — I would never have guessed how much I’d be entertained by this funny, charming, and brilliantly produced saga of a seven-year-old boy who’s tired of running away from trouble. The film screens at SBIFF again today, Sunday, February 7, at 4:15 p.m., and I wholeheartedly recommend taking your whole family along for the ride, as its themes, dialogue, and visual offerings are perfect for all ages. And it’s a great introduction to subtitles for younger kids, because the conversations tend to be brisk and simplistic in a good, fable-like way.

A scene from <em>Ballad</em>

Still need some more information to determine if it’s worth your time? Without giving away too much of the plot, Ballad does concern a seven-year-old boy who gets whisked away from an old oak tree back in time to Japan’s feudal era, a time when samurai defended their home castle complexes from warring tribes. Bringing along with him such modern and, to the samurai, very bizarre conveniences as a cell phone camera, the boy finds himself an integral player in both a cute budding relationship and a fierce battle between lords. The set and costume design — including the re-creation of an entire village and the picture-perfect renditions of samurai outfits and weapons — is impeccable, but the interplay between new technology and the old ways is what really gets the most laughs. It’s not a straight comedy though, as there are serious emotions and conflicts at play; it’s more like a young adult fantasy novel, in which we cheer for our protagonist but also must cope with some real world sadness along the way.

In a film fest full of entries focused on gritty realism and depressing worldviews, Ballad proves a lovely antidote, delivering enough chuckles and goodhearted messages to warm your day.


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