Cutie and the Boxer
Zachary Heinzerling // 2013 // 82 mins
Ushio Shinohara is a New York based Japanese artist who enjoyed early success for his alternative works that primarily consist of obscure sculptures and 'boxing paintings'. Cutie and the Boxer reflects back on Ushio's career and his chaotic 40 year relationship with his wife Noriko; an art student who fell for Ushio while visiting New York and has lived in his shadow ever since. The documentary provides and intimate portrayal of the everyday life that the couple share, the conflicts that arise from their competing artistic voices and the disenchantment of a life that hasn't gone to plan.
Director Zachary Heinzerling has beautifully captured the life shared between this couple as they struggle to pay rent and continue to get their art on display in galleries. Ushio proves to be a fascinating subject as we are provided a direct insight into the history of his career and his unconventional creative processes, but it is Noriko who emerges as the focus of Heinzerling's film. Her's is a story of compromise and bitterness, but also of affection. There's a real sense of disappointment as Noriko talks candidly of how her husband treats her more like an assistant than an equal and how her own artistic desires had to be sidelined in order to support his career, she recalls how at 19 she fell for Ushio, how he asked to borrow money from her the morning after they first slept together and how her parent's cut her funds off once they learned of her decision to marry him. She projects these feelings and memories into her artwork, a series of monochrome, watercolour paintings that depict the life of 'Cutie' and her overbearing husband 'Bullie'.
Heinzerling brings their art to life both figuratively and literally. There is a constant interest in the process of making art and the varying levels of skill that each of the artists show in their craftsmanship. This skill is captured in small moments and through carefully considered cinematography where Ushio and Noriko are completely engaged in their chosen mediums. The passion they both share for their work is inspiring and the art is a constant presence, even when the focus is on the people behind the paint, as Ushio's ego and Noriko's desire to break out from her husband's shadow are at the core of many of the couples conflicts. Where Ushio's dramatic pieces provide spectacle, Noriko's delicate paintings provide an insight into their relationship her beautiful art is animated in sequences that illustrate their history together from her perspective as she narrates. These scenes are but one example of the way in which the documentary explores with candour, an un-glamorous marriage. Their life together has not been a fairytale and their is no attempt to depict it as such. Cutie and the Boxer intimately explores these two people in an extremely forthright manner as topics such as Ushio's alcoholism and lack of respect for Noriko are exposed during everyday moments shared between the two.
Rather than a celebration of the work of Ushio Shinohara, Cutie and the Boxer becomes a stunning portrait of his wife Noriko. Her determination to forge her own name in the art world and her complicated love-hate relationship with her husband provides the film's heart and makes it much more than a simple exploration of an artists world. The life that these two share is shown through equal filters of affection and resentment, but it is always engaging and Heinzerling captures it with a remarkable honesty that makes for such an insightful documentary.