“Domains” (2019), directed by Natsuka Kusano, is an innovative and startling examination of the nature of performance in cinema. A single plot summary cannot encompass the many ways in which Kusano dissects the multiple layers of the cinematic medium in her groundbreaking film. “Domains” is about the various degrees of truth and perception which film can explore. Do we see a film to uncover simply plot details, or should we explore deeper by seeing how cinema can change our perspectives as viewers? Kusano examines questions like these, and many more, in “Domains.”

As the film opens, the lead character Aki (Shibuya Asami) is confessing her part in the murder of the daughter of her close friend to a police investigator. At first, we think “Domains” is going to be a police procedural about what led Aki to commit this shocking crime. In a way, “Domains” is an investigation into what would drive someone to commit murder, but it does so in a completely unexpected manner. After the opening interrogation scene, the rest of “Domains” consists of rehearsal scenes for a separate film about the events leading up to the murder. The three main characters in these rehearsals are Aki, her close friend Nodoka (Kasajima Tomo), and her friend’s unnamed husband (Tomo Kasajima).

The rehearsals play out for the most part in real time, and it’s interesting to see how Kusano films the same scenes multiple times in varying perspectives to reveal how a simple change of tone or rephrasing of a line of dialogue can alter the whole meaning of each scene. In this way, Kusano is exploring the elasticity of cinema, and how it can be used to distort viewers’ perspectives of cinematic truth. Jacques Rivette also explored this same free flowing nature of film in his magnum opus “Out 1,” which similarly consisted of many scenes of actors rehearsing.

Both Kusano and Rivette show how cinema by its very nature is something that is being manipulated not only by the director, but also by the actors who bring their own truths to the film. Aki tries to make sense of her motivations for murder by turning her actions into a filmic performance piece for an audience. By doing so, the actress playing Aki, along with her two acting collaborators, have just as much power over the construction of “Domains” as the director Kusano does.

However, this power is not simply one of actors using their skills to elicit emotion from the viewer as in a traditional film. Instead, by revealing how all of “Domains” is essentially a transparently theatrical experience, Kusano and her actors are giving power back to the viewer to create their own interpretations of what they are seeing on screen. It is never made clear if Aki actually committed the murder she confesses to at the opening of the film, or if the murder is just a fictional aspect of the film Aki is rehearsing for.

Kusano wants to reveal those elements of cinema which are traditionally hidden from viewers. Not only does she show us rehearsals of scenes, but Kusano also draws attention to the camera itself, as in one scene where the camera purposefully pulls back from the actors in a disruptive and obvious manner. In another scene, we clearly see the reflection of the camera in a mirror, and several times throughout the film we hear someone yelling “cut,” or we see the slate being used. Alejandro Jodorowsky similarly ended “Holy Mountain” by panning out to reveal a film set, but Kusano takes this further by hiding almost nothing from the viewer.

Ultimately, Kusano is trying to make a more active form of cinema where the audience has to fully engage with what they are seeing on screen. Kusano is breaking apart the artificially of film, and forcing viewers to come to their own interpretations. Like the character of Aki, one views “Domains” as a form of constant rehearsal to re-wire how we view cinema. There is no longer one form of cinematic truth dominated by Hollywood films whose sole function is to manipulate viewers into feeling pre-determined emotions and perspectives. Instead, Kusano and other filmmakers like her are pointing us towards a more empowering and liberating form of cinematic engagement.

  • Film Review: "Domains"