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'Cutie and the Boxer' tells an unconventional story about love, but not a love story

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

Ushio Shinohara was a “rowdy, confrontational" young artist, seemed destined for fame after moving to New York City in the late 1960’s. He hung out with Warhol. He’d been part of Japan’s post-war avant-garde movement, most well-known as the “boxing painter,” for his exhibitionist art where he would dip his cloth-bound hands in ink, and punch his way down a canvas. But his full potential was never realized.

This would have been an interesting story for director Zachary Heinzerling to tell.

A 19-year old Japanese art student moves to the US, only to fall in love with a rising artist from her homeland, 20 years her senior. She gives up her education, parts with her wealthy family, has a son, and becomes a manager-caretaker of sorts for her eccentric, alcoholic husband.

This, too would have been an interesting story to tell.

Instead, Zachary Heinzerling gives us something in between, but also altogether different. 40 years on, Heinzerling finds Ushio and Noriko Shinohara living near poverty in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. Over the course of five years, Heinzerling documents their contemporary lives, as Ushio considers his legacy during his waning years, and Noriko aims to find an identity of her own, using her experiences with her husband as inspiration. The result is an intimate look at this symbiotic relationship, to help the viewer understand its past and future.

Zachary Heinzerling spoke with me over the phone about his film:

“Why did you decide to tell the story that way? Not really a traditional, like, artist bio pic, but she’s really sort of the main character in this story, if there is a main character.”

Heinzerling: “Yea, what I did sort of think, was I could make this kind of impressionistic but also kind of like a realist narrative film in style by kind of just observing them and their way of life and the sort of drama that inevitably erupts out of two competitive people that are both making art in the same space. You know they’re always sort of on edge with things, they struggle financially and they’re always sort of looking for the next opportunity or the next show, or whatever the next - you know they’re sort of the eternally struggling artists. So I thought that just with the situation they were in and their unique personalities, observing them and watching them could be enough and that the story would sort of unfold. And the story is mostly the sort of, their contemporary life and… mainly the transformation that Noriko goes through from sort of being Ushio’s slave more or less to having her own voice and starting this series of paintings and really developing it while I was shooting.”

“It sounds like, you know, their relationship… it probably came in many forms over time, but it sounds like you caught her at a very interesting time in her relationship and her life..”

Heinzerling: “Yeah, I think the film definitely could not have been made (at a different time). I think that maybe today it would be a very different film because in order for films like this to work, things have to sort of organically change.”

“For the audience, what do you hope they get out of your film?”

Heinzerling: “A few things. I think the film, the crux of the film lies in their relationship and how complicated love is and how complicated relationships can be. The idea that there are these indefinable bonds that connect people; that we can’t always sort of analyze or reason why somebody is with another person. But I think people wonder why Norkio stayed with Ushio for so long, because the fact of the matter is he was a pretty terrible husband for the majority of their marriage. But, you know, he also provided a lot of inspiration for Noriko and she really fed off of his, the sort of purity of his art and his nature and his dedication. And he also has a gentler side as well that sort of comes through in the film. But you know, at the end I think it’s about the fact that relationships are extremely, extremely complicated and this is a very, very complicated one. It works sometimes for mainly practical reasons but there’s certainly reasons beyond those that hopefully are seen in the film and that hopefully people can sort of recognize in their own relationships.”

Cutie and the Boxer is set to screen at True/False on Friday, March 1 at 3:00pm at The Globe, Saturday March 2 at 8:30pm at the Missouri Theatre and Sunday March 3 at 3:00pm at Missouri Theatre. Heinzerling and Norkia and Ushio Shinohara will all attend the festival.

Some background information for this article sourced from official website of the film.

Ryan served as the KBIA News Director from February 2011 to September 2023