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A CANDLE LIGHTS THE HEART is Made to Move Audiences


By Michael Andrews (Ebert Young Writers Participant)

It’s understandable that a film focusing on a memorial ceremony might slip into over-sentimentality, and A Candle Lights The Heart is no exception. With that said, this is a movie made for catharsis; a movie with only the most benevolent intentions to move hearts and induce tears.

The film is a labor of love for producer and director Shinji Kondo, a Shinnyo-en reverend who has been working on the film since at least 2007, editing it himself when not busy with temple duties. A Candle Lights elegantly handles its considerable task of presenting six narratives: five of families and friends attending the lantern lighting ceremony in honor of their lost loved ones, and a look at all the people both in attendance at and behind the event. All the stories seem treated with equal respect and importance, and the film succeeds at not becoming scattered, despite the amount of stories being told.

However, the film’s grace in telling its narratives doesn’t translate into a clear overall vision. I feel like the film’s strongest moments are those that focus on the humanity of the stories and of the human experiences facilitated by the massive memorial service, but often the film seems to steer away from intimacy and humanity in favor of the grandeur of the event and of the spiritual importance the film seems to place on the grieving process. In trying to highlight both of these epic images, the movie diminishes some of the more mundane but infinitely more important theme of personal healing processes. Besides the thematic disharmony this generates, it also very tangibly affects the film’s tone and feeling, most noticeably in overly exaggerated and misplaced scenes. For example, the opening of the film prominently features a bombastic voice-over sequence which lists to the viewer all of the emotions they will feel from this movie, and there are also multiple scenes featuring event or stock footage with overly busy camerawork and (at times) distracting music – as a side note: the music for this film is rather spectacular and was produced by the same composers who score the event, but the volume and intricacy of the music often seems at odds with their respective scenes.

In the end, A Candle Lights is a film with a clear purpose. Kondo has said that his main goals for the film were to move audiences and provide them with the feeling of “being on the beach” during the ceremony; in that respect, the movie very clearly succeeds. Though it might fumble with gravitas, its emotion is undeniable. The movie’s subject matter paired with its deeply respectful and compassionate presentation makes it commanding in its ability to make one relate. I couldn’t help but remember all those I’ve lost, and the audience in attendance seemed overwhelmingly responsive to and contented with the film. It’s overly-sentimental and suffers from some melodramatic artistic choices, but A Candle Lights The Heart is a heart-warming film and is very successful at what aims to accomplish.

As a part of our Ebert Young Writers Program for the Arts, we will be publishing the participants reviews and interviews they produce for the workshop on the official HIFF blog. 

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