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Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer

A Love Divided – ★★★★

Director Zachary Heinzerling’s first feature film explores the relationship between a struggling New York painter and his cartoonist wife. Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko have been together over forty years and yet still struggle to make the rent waiting for another big sale or gallery exhibition to sustain them.

Ushio was a relatively big deal in the 1970’s New York art scene, now best known as “the boxer” due to his trademark move of donning huge sponged boxing gloves and moving across large canvasses. It’s a brilliant visual thing to observe an 80-year-old doing (here’s a clip) but the result’s value as a finished piece of art has to be brought into question. He also makes huge technicolour sculptures of papier mache motorbikes. He’s a wonderfully childlike man who seems to hate wearing his shirt and archive footage shows that he has never really grew up, turning to alcohol for large parts of his career to deal with (and inadvertantly prolong) his failures. Ushio developed a medical condition which meant he couldn’t drink or make party anymore but despite the changes, Noriko still struggled to deal with the fallout. She has designed her main cartoon character, the pig-tailed “Cutie”, as a way of dealing with a sort of loving resentment she holds toward her husband for the way he inhibited her own career. Ushio and Noriko have a son, also an artist, who is approaching forty and who is now stuck in the doldrums of alcohol without any focus or direction.

An 80-year-old paint-punching a canvas. Cutie and the Boxer. Ushio Shinohara.

An 80-year-old paint-punching a canvas.

The Shinoharas live in a comically beaten-up Brooklyn apartment with a front door that seems to be barely sitting on its hinges. This kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother them and instead Henzerling’s camera just observes a couple who are survivors who, after everything they’ve been through, are only now just settling into each other’s company. The director spent almost five years on and off with the couple and it becomes obvious very early on that they’re completely comfortable in his presence and that this really is a document of their married life. Creative couples always forge interesting dynamics and seeing how they divide out their spaces, money and time is a lot of fun. There’s continuous petty bickering and banter which is both hilarious and heart-warming as you get a sense of how far they’ve come. Noriko is 21 years younger than her husband and there’s a running joke about her being his lowly assistant. With very little work, their dynamic would make for a terrific stage play.

It’s quite obvious neither of the Shinohara are really great artists, but when put together as a unit they make for engaging characters whose biggest career achievement is probably the fact that they’re still together. Anyone with an interest in how creative people work together and alone should see this.

Released in Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema on November 1st 2013 and plays the Cork Film Festival on November 12th, more info at

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Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.