A ménage a trios involving elemental strangers trapped in a hole, a prison where flesh and bone are scraped away, covered by the constantly shifting skin of the dunes. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara pulls focus upon a tiny world of two insect-like humans who scratch and claw their feeble way towards self-discovery.
A nameless man (his name isn't revealed until the final credits) walks the mysterious dunes searching for insects to add to his collection. He is soon tricked into descending a ladder into a pit where he becomes trapped with a beautiful young woman (also nameless) who suffers an eternal struggle to save her home from the shifting sand. The man reflects upon his own identity, captured on paper and plastic, filed away and recorded, and thinks of himself as a teacher and scientist, a man of reason. He neither formally introduces himself to the young woman nor asks her name. This is partly an subliminal answer to the question that Teshigahara hasn't revealed yet; that is, the nature/nurture of identity.
Teshigahara uses superb compositions to underscore tone and theme, often reducing the characters to extreme close-ups, the sand almost a second skin, then cuts to insects pinned in a box, or medium shots of the man through lateral shadows like prison bars. He films the shifting and cracking sand as if it's a living entity, undulating and amorphous, an intelligent design. The man's reactions are full of impotent rage, but they also share moments of kindness. She accepts her position and works to save her home while he wishes to escape...but to where? The villagers who tricked him seem cruel but this is a matter of perspective; they give them a weekly allowance of water and food, and save his life when he escapes. Their masked visages leering over the pit's edge during some mysterious ceremony, urging them to fuck so he can be allowed to walk to the sea once a day is emotionally disruptive. But it seems more like an initiation than exploitation.
The man finally escapes but runs into a metaphorical larger pit and is caught in quicksand. He realizes that he really has no home, admitting he became a scientists to escape the confines of the city, and is just running in circles. Here, with this naive and beautiful woman he has finally put down roots. He has earned his right to stay in the village and given the means of escape, and he cannot wait to share his invention with his kindred spirits. He is home.
Final Grade: (A)