looking at SSTOCKER1's question and YAKUZA BENGOSHI's comments on the movie, I'd like to offer my take on Koreeda's great exercise of Dogma-style film-making. That said, I don't think it is necessary for us to "get" the story just by identifying the roles of the characters. For example, YAKUZA BENGHOSHI proposes that the mysterious arson/impostor is the son of the cult-leader. But is that a necessary assumption? Does he have to be the son of the leader to feel that kind of emotional attachment to the clan?
And aren't most members to cult-groups considered "children" to their respective leaders? (e.g. Guyana, Waco, and Serin gas attack in Japan)
The mysterious impostor (played by ARATA)was, if nothing else, at least the link to more than one of the dead members whose relatives joined him on this particular memorial outing. Remember, he is the childhood friend to one of the dead member's brother--medical student,as well as being a friend to the dead female member--Yuko, to whom he claims as his sister.
Could he be a recruiter who introduced the cult to 2 of the dead members (i.e. the lifeguard's brother, and the dead flower-shop girl)? What if he was also the one assigned to light the fire to which many of the cult members were killed by?
The scene by the river with our mystery man discussing his faith with Yuko seems to propose the idea that this WAS her introduction to the cult. Notice the scenes showing his use of photo-shop to paste himself into the girl's family photo, along with short clips of the mystery man burning photos in the back of the hut (in flash-back form) were both inserted thru-out the film. The consistent association with fire (i.e. the act of burning)could possibly imply his motive at the gathering as his way to rid his guilt for having to end his friends' lives... by helping the others find closure, he ends up resolving his own pain--having met the family of the dead, he finds relief & a way to move on.
Notice all the dead cult members in the story joined the clan b/c of being lost (e.g. loss of love or lack of self-worth)... that is, except for the lifeguard's brother who thought the clan offered a way for him to justify his existence and talent as a physician. The housewife felt abandoned by her husband, her companion lacked self-esteem... the flower-shop girl couldn't deal with her brother's suicide, and the teacher felt confined by the existing education system, thinking it hindered his good will and talent to benefit society, etc... Whereas we don't really know why Mr. Imposter became a member. He seemed to have been ambivalent to his purpose in life, and perhaps he felt the cult was the only place where he found a sense of purpose. We know he wanted to heal people, and we know he felt the cult was the answer and antidote to the others'pain.
so many questions to a great story that probably didn't warrant having to endure the first 20 minutes to the film (which showed the group getting lost in the woods)... but if you can survive the first 20 minutes, the rest is all worth the wait...
DISTANCE (2001) is not as good and entertaining a film as AFTERLIFE (1997), but Koreeda managed to show again how good stories don't need a huge budget, sets, and lots of CG gadgets to turn into a great piece of cinema.
can't wait to see his latest film - NOBODY KNOWS (2004)