This article appeared in the June 7, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Beijing Watermelon (Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1989)

Arriving shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Beijing Watermelon (1989) is a mellow true story about a greengrocer on the outskirts of Tokyo who took a troop of poor Chinese exchange students under his wing in 1987. Initially reluctant to haggle with them, Shunzo (Japanese comedian Bengal) becomes consumed with his burgeoning status as an intermediary and father figure—before long he is their chaperone, valet, guarantor, and personal shopper, gleefully interpreting their broken Japanese. “Japan… China… friendship,” he mutters to himself on loop, affirming his belief that hidden in these interpersonal relationships is a key to international relations, while his wife and children are left to manage the store alone. Where Ôbayashi’s earlier work is markedly surreal, Beijing Watermelon exhibits neorealist sensibilities, with misty images of daikon, cabbage, and green onion, and scenes of Chinese students and Japanese locals dancing and debating on the beach.

But a geopolitical heaviness also hangs over the film, which started production in May 1989, when the Tiananmen Square demonstrations had already been raging for a few weeks in Beijing. While Ôbayashi does not explicitly refer to the protests, the film extends a hand to the students through Shunzo’s goodwill. Beijing Watermelon might well be summed up in its last-gasp epilogue, which depicts a trip that the real-life Shunzo and his wife had taken to China to visit the students two years before the film’s production. These scenes were intended to be shot in Beijing, but they take place instead on a soundstage in Japan. In a fourth-wall break, Bengal walks through the set to board a prop airplane, with all the filming equipment visible on camera, shortly after noting to the audience: “Our film was never able to catch up with real life.”

Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based critic and film programmer.