Oscar-Nominated Director Packs a Punch With “Cutie and the Boxer”

“It’s a film about a married couple who loves each other but would never admit it. Or you could say it’s a story about creative desire so strong it hurts.”

Three years into the production of his documentary Cutie and the Boxer, Zach Heinzerling, BA ’06, left his job at HBO to commit to the project full-time. Now, with a Sundance Best Director Award under his belt, his heartfelt directorial debut is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category.

The film delves into the complicated marriage of Japanese artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. Forty years ago as a New York art student, Noriko fell in love with Ushio, a rising avant-garde artist who is 20 years her senior. At the age of 80, Ushio still struggles to find commercial success with his boxing paintings (which involve attacking the canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint), while Noriko begins to find her own artistic voice through a series of drawings entitled “Cutie,” depicting her difficult past with Ushio. The documentary has been heralded for its unique and honest portrayal of a relationship battling themes of creativity, love, sacrifice, and aging.

“I wanted to make something that wasn’t a biography or a standard documentary, but much more of this fairytale narrative, with an imaginative quality to it,” Heinzerling says. His vision for the project was that it could be distinct both visually and orally.

Rather than follow common documentary storytelling techniques like voiceovers and interviews, “Cutie and the Boxer” provides a more visual, and therefore emotional, experience of the Shinohara’s relationship. Moments in the film use old archival footage of the two as well as animated versions of Noriko’s drawings. “I think they are both beautiful, very photogenic personalities,” Heinzerling says. “When you’re making a film about art you have more license to be creative with the way it’s made.”

Heinzerling’s interest in ’60s and ’70s modern art was part of what initially drew him to the Shinohara’s story. The rarity of their existence caught his attention: they seemed to be the last of a dying breed of pure, romantic struggling artists who existed in that period.

“I had never heard of them before, but they seemed like underrepresented artists,” Heinzerling says. A friend of many famous artists, Ushio was always on the fringe of the New York art scene. “In some ways that made him more interesting to me as a subject because nobody knew about him, so it was sort of a blank canvas with which to show his life, and then also the life of his even lesser-known wife, who was even more of a discovery.”

Cutie and the Boxer’s evolution from a simple short film to a full-scale production took a total of five years to complete. It’s only natural, then, that the Shinoharas’ way of life began to resonate with the man behind the camera.

“I learned a lot about what it means to be an artist, what it takes to be an artist,” Heinzerling says. “They are people who fly blindly in pursuit of whatever they feel is beautiful. There’s a real inspiring quality to their lives and the unconventional nature in which they live. I think you can’t help but be affected by that.”

Watch the trailer here:

Photo courtesy of  RADiUS-TWC


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