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cutieandtheboxerposterartThis highly entertaining character-driven documentary chronicles the lives of two very engaging and quirky artists who are a vital part of New York City’s art scene.

Filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling follows the daily routines of Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara, Japanese fine artists who moved to New York during the 1960s, got married in 1979, and have been living and working together in their crowded loft in Dumbo (that’s an artsy part of Brooklyn, for those who don’t know the ins and outs of New York neighborhoods)for the past 27 years.

A Couple of Strong Indivduals

They are both dedicated to making art, and their interests sometimes clash.

Ushio, who came to New York in 1969 on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He is the film’s “Boxer,” designated as such because he’s best known for the abstract action paintings he makes by punching pools of vivid color onto huge canvasses, using boxing gloves covered with paint-drenched sponges to deliver the paint. In the documentary, we see him at work, attacking the canvas with tremendous energy and commitment. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pools of bright yellow paint appear on the canvas. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pools of black paint are added. Ushio steps back and watches streams of paint dripping down the canvas. He studies what he’s done, and decides whether he likes it as is, or if it needs more of the same or something different. When he’s not punching paint onto canvasses, Ushio is creating large sculptures out found objects and junk he’s picked up on the street. The assemblages resemble the progeny that might result from the mating of imaginary monster insects with motorcycles or other sorts of machines. The sculptures can easily be pulled apart and reassembled, as we see when Ushio casually stuffs a suitcase with pieces that he intends to sell to a gallery in Japan. Ushio is strong but sometimes cranky 80-something. He’s set in his ways, and quite demanding. And, he gets on Noriko’s nerves.

Identifying “Cutie”

Noriko is the documentary’s “Cutie” — so-called because she has created a series of autobiographical etchings centering around a character she calls “Cutie,” deployed as her personal avatar, and a character she calls “Bulli,” who represents Ushio. The etchings are wonderfully quirky, often ironic illustrations in which she depicts scenes from her physical and emotional life. Noriko steals time to work on her illustrations, and she struggles to get gallery owners and art cognoscenti who come to see Ushio’s work to take a look at hers, as well. — using a character she calls “Cutie” as her avatar, and a character named “Bulli” to represent Ushio. The names are also descriptive of their relationship

For decades, Noriko has served loyally — but not without resentment — as Ushio’s assistant. She supports him, defers to him and allows his work to supersede her own. After all these years, she’s fed up with that, and she makes no attempt to hide her feelings.

An Intimate View

Zachary Heinzerling’s fly on the wall approach to filming Ushio and Noriko gives us an intimate insider view of their lives, work and relationship. He uses archival footage, including the Shinoharas’ home movies, to show their personal and professional evolution. They are both captivating characters. But the film’s focus is really on Noriko, whose point of view is most clearly presented and who, in the end, does get the recognition she deserves.

Film Details

    Title: Cutie and The Boxer
    Director: Zachary Heinzerling
    Running Time: 82 mins.
    Language: English and Japanese with English subtitles
    US Theatrical Release Date: August 16, 2013 (in limited release)
    Motion Picture Rating (MPAA): R for nudity shown in some paintings
    Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
    Location: New York City and Brooklyn, USA, Tokyo
    Production Companies: Little Magic Films (in association with) Cine Mosaic (production company), Ex Lion Tamer
    Distribution Company: RADIUS (TWC)
    Official Website and Facebook Page
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