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Cannes Film Festival 2024 Hidden Gem: ‘My Sunshine’

Cannes Film Festival 2024 Hidden Gem: ‘My Sunshine’

Japanese director Hiroshi Okuyama is only 28 years old, but his feature filmmaking to date has been suffused by the desire to reach back into the past at the elusive sensibilities of youth. Okuyama announced himself as something of a prodigy — he writes, directs, edits and serves as his own cinematographer on his films — when his feature debut, Jesus, made when he was just 22 years old, won the New Director’s Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2018.

Inspired by Okuyama’s early experiences, the film explores the inner world of a nine-year-old boy grappling with the foreign concepts of Christianity after his family has abruptly moved from Tokyo to rural Japan and enrolled him in a small Christian day school.

Okuyama’s career is poised to take a big step up later this week when his long-in-the-making follow-up, My Sunshine, premieres in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard competition. The new film is again a delicate evocation of Okuyama’s memories from elementary school, this time an exploration of a period when the director semi-seriously practiced figure skating in the shadow of his sister, a competitive ice dancer. 

“I thought that if I could remind people with this film of the emotions they experienced when they were children, it might revitalize them and wake them up to their feelings,” Okuyama says of his intentions. “When we’re kids, everything comes with a sense of wonder. It’s new and fresh, and our sense of security is still very wide open. That’s why we can feel incredible joy or profound hurt from quite tiny things that happen. As we become adults, we lose that and it becomes hard to be moved.” 

Set on a small island in Northern Japan, My Sunshine follows a young boy named Takuya (Keitatsu Koshiyama) who is expected by his parents and peers to play ice hockey like all the other young boys in his village. Instead, while practicing on the ice after school one day, he finds his interest drawn to Sakura (first-timer Kiara Nakanishi), a talented young ice dancer, who recently moved from Tokyo. Sakura’s coach, a former figure skating champion, notices potential in Takuya and takes him under his wing, suggesting he form a duo with Sakura for an upcoming competition. The film takes the changes of the seasons as a metaphor for the bond that forms among the trio, with feelings growing as the winter snow accumulates. But their precious moment in time together — and all the anticipatory promise it seems to hold — soon melts away with the coming of spring in a hopefully ambiguous denouement. 

“When I decided to make this film,” Okuyama remembers, “on the first page of my notebook, I wrote, ‘Journal of a young boy’s growth from the first snow until the melting of spring.’ ”

Okuyama adds that finding his child stars — impressively precocious actors, who can also ice skate with a high degree of skill — was the most challenging part of making My Sunshine.

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“Initially, we tried to cast young actors who fit the part, with the idea that we could teach them how to skate,” he remembers. “But we realized right away how arduous this would be and that we wouldn’t have nearly enough time,” he explains. 

Nodding to the emotional delicacy of My Sunshine and Okuyama’s apparent touch with child actors, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux hailed the young filmmaker at a press conference in April as potentially “the next [Hirokazu] Kore-eda” (Shoplifters) — Japan’s most recent Palme d’Or winner, Oscar-nominated and world-famous for his wrenching but subtle family dramas.

“To me, this is the greatest compliment I could receive,” Okuyama says, noting that he has revered the elder Japanese director’s work since he was a high school kid. “I will spend my whole career trying to live up to it.” 

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