Doris Dörrie's Cherry Blossoms is part of a recent wave of family dramas that pay homage to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu either overtly or implicitly, and in some ways, Cherry Blossoms seems like Dörrie's attempt to out-Ozu the competition. Elmar Wepper plays a late-middle-aged German bureaucrat who's nearing retirement when his wife Hannelore Elsner dies. Though Elsner claims her husband "hates adventure"—and though their grown children think he's so dull that they don't want him around—Wepper decides to live out his wife's dream to travel to Japan for a cherry-blossom festival. There, Wepper reconnects with Elsner by exploring her love of dance and experiencing the changing of the seasons.
Much of Cherry Blossoms is set in cramped domestic spaces populated by loved ones who barely tolerate each other, but while it's lovingly photographed and focused on long-simmering family strife, it's no Tokyo Story. It doesn't even approach the complexity of other recent studies of passive-aggressiveness, such as Rachel Getting Married, A Christmas Tale, or Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Still Walking. Dörrie is much blunter. Cherry Blossoms opens with a voiceover from Elsner describing Wepper's fussy habits and tendencies; Dörrie stays in that overexplaining vein for the next two hours, whether she's showing grandkids more interested in their Game Boys than conversation, or having Wepper dismiss the notion of a trip to Japan with a glib, "Fuji's just another mountain."
Cherry Blossoms' compositions are meticulous, and Dörrie modernizes her style with intermittent use of a handheld camera and impressionistic editing, reminiscent of Lost In Translation. Dörrie also holds on still images that sum up a situation: a tear stain on an ironing board, a plate of all-white food, a pair of shoes left behind by the recently departed, and so on. In spite of its overwrought first hour, Cherry Blossoms develops into something genuinely moving in its second half, as Wepper tries to conjure up the spirit of his late wife by holding her clothes and contemplating transience. But then Dörrie takes her Nipponophilia a step too far, as Wepper meets the family of a young Butoh dancer and enjoys a family dynamic far more satisfying than his own. There's something a little shallow about contrasting ungrateful German kids with their respectful Japanese counterparts and presuming the cultural differences are so cut-and-dried. At the least, it shows that Dörrie may not have understood Ozu's films as clearly as she believes.