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Film / Woman in the Dunes

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"Are you shoveling sand to live, or living to shovel sand?"

Suna no onna (砂の女) AKA Sand Woman AKA Woman In The Dunes AKA (The) Woman of the Dunes is a Japanese film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, released in 1964.

Niki Jumpei is a teacher and entomologist (a scientist who studies insects) who is trying to collect insects that inhabit sand dunes on an expedition. When he misses the last bus, the villagers offer him to stay the night. They guide him down a rope ladder to a house in a sand quarry where a young widow lives alone. The villagers employ her to dig sand for sale and to save the house from burial in the advancing sand. Unfortunately, Jumpei discovers the next morning that the villagers don't want him to leave and they want him to help the widow in her endless task of digging sand. Jumpei must find a way to deal with this situation.

This film provides examples of:

  • Allegory: Essentially the whole movie is an allegory for the desire to escape from society and the forces that keep us imprisoned within it.
  • Artistic License: The director admitted that sand won't really pile up at any angle greater than thirty degrees, but there wouldn't be a story without the steep slopes of the sand dunes trapping Jumpei and the woman at the bottom.
  • Attempted Rape: Jumpei and the woman are told they can leave the dunes for one hour a day if they let the villagers watch them have sex. The woman disagrees but Jumpei tries to get her to do it (or at least pretend to) because it could be his chance to run away. She ends up fighting Jumpei off and they're left to stay where they are.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Jumpei builds one out of fishnet and rags to attach to a grappling hook fashioned from a stick and a rusty pair of scissors.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The good news is that Jumpei found a way to improve life in the pit by drawing water from the damp sand at night. The bad news is that he has gone missing for seven years, and it's hard to say what would happen if they find him.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Many extreme close-ups in the early going of the bugs that Jumpei is catching. Later there are similar extreme close-ups of Jumpei and the woman, showing how they are similarly captive.
  • Discreet Drink Disposal: Jumpei starts one escape attempt by getting the woman drunk, while pouring his own drinks out into the sand.
  • Dutch Angle: Extreme thirst leads Jumpei to hallucinate that the whole shack is underwater, as illustrated by a crooked Dutch Angle shot through the open door.
  • No Name Given: The woman doesn't have a name.
  • Orbital Shot: Around Jumpei as he makes it out of the pit and to the surface, only to realize he has no idea where to go.
  • Psychological Horror: The story of one man being enslaved by having his will to resist gradually broken.
  • Quicksand Sucks: Jumpei succeeds in getting out of the sand quarry, but as he doesn't know the local geography, he flees from the other villagers straight into a quicksand pit, in which he is soon engulfed up to the waist. The villagers dig him out and return him to the woman in the quarry.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: The first sex between Jumpei and the woman takes place after a tussle when she tries to stop Jumpei from tearing the house apart to make a ladder.
  • Staggered Zoom: The film opens with a shot of a large amorphous object. A series of staggered zooms out reveal that the object in the first shot was a single grain of sand, with the last zoom showing the entire beach.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Jumpei tries to escape a few times and fails. Eventually, he gets so used to his situation that he decides not to escape when the opportunity presents itself, only going to the top of the ladder for long enough to look at the sea.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: He isn't even the first one. Previously there was a postcard salesman, and a student who is still there after three years, three doors down.
  • Womb Horror: In the final act, the woman is overwhelmed by pain, and the villagers who respond to Jumpei's call for help suspect she has an ectopic pregnancynote  which requires immediate medical attention.

Alternative Title(s): Suna No Onna