Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Watched this week, September 18 - 24, 2006

Tokyo no Yado / Tokyo Inn (Yasujiro Ozu, 1935)

My favorite Ozu silent (though it is a bit of a close call), this follows the fortunes (or misfortunes) of two homeless families -- a single father (Takeshi Sakamoto) with two boys and a single mother (Yoshiko Okada) with a little girl as they look for work in depression era Tokyo. Things finally seem to be looking up for Sakamoto and his kids (the older of which is played by always wonderful Tomio Aoki) when an old friend (Choko Iida) helps him find work -- and the boys are able to finally return to school -- but then Okada (still vainly seeking work) and her daughter vanish...

Ozu may not have inspired the neo-realist movement (as they probably knew nothing of his work), but he clearly anticipated it in this clear-eyed study of the lowest rung of the working class. The surviving source materials are quite deteriorated -- but I am simply happy this masterpiece survives at all.

Nagasaki no Kane / the Bell of Nagasaki (Hideo Oba, 1950)

This is the first Japanese film to deal with the atom bombing of Japan. It tells the real story of Dr. Takashi Nagai, a physician and medical professor from Nagasaki, engaged to a Catholic woman (but also loved by his faithful nurse) who converts on the battlefield (in the 30s) and then returns to his teaching post, marries and has children. At the beginning of 1945, he learns he is suffering from terminal cancer and likely has only a year or so left to live -- but he goes on working. As the war situation worsens, the children are sent to live with an elderly rural relative (played by "Uncle" from Ozu's "Early Summer"). His wife remains in town -- and is incinerated (nothing being left but her rosary) in her home when the bomb explodes over Nagasaki. Despite being injured by the bomb himself (and despite his personal loss), Dr. Nagai took charge of the effort to provide medical care to the survivors, working virtually non-stop until he physically collapsed. After his (partial) recovery, he returned to teaching for a couple of years, but soon has to retire due his worsening cancer. At this point, though confined to his bed, he began writing feverishly, documenting the impact of the bomb and its consequences for the survivors of the bomb. In his last days, he won acclaim from both the Emperor and the Pope.

Surprisingly, this film doesn't come across as stilted hagiography -- but is mostly vigorously effective even if not "high art" (as was Oba's prior "Woman of the Typhoon Zone"). Good performances from Masao Wakaharas ("Carmen's Pure Love") as Dr. Nagai, Yumeji Tsukioka (Aya in "Late Spring") as his wife and Keiko Tsushima (Setsuko in "Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice").

Bu jian bu san / Be There Or Be Square (FENG Xiaogang, 1998)

An enjoyable romantic comedy about two Chinese immigrants (from the same town) to the USA, whose paths keep crossing. While our heroine (XU Fan) doesn't dislike our hero (the great comic actor GE You), he always seems to bring disaster in his wake. nonetheless, every year or so, their paths accidentally cross again... (A Chinese friend says that the title is better translated as "If you're not there, I'll just keep waiting")

A first-rate entertainment -- with first-rate performances. The DVD edition of this seems to be out of print, but the still-available (and cheap) VCD has English subtitles -- and is passable.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Watched this week, September 11 - 17, 2006

Tochuken Kumoemon (Mikio Naruse, 1936)

Tochuken Kumoemon may not be a major work (I think) but it was still of some interest. This film is based on a real Meiji era performer -- and tells of Tochuken's partnership with his wife (played by Chikako Hosokawa) who played shamisen for his songs/recitations), his affair with a geisha (Sachiko Chiba), the deterioration of his partnership and marriage and the angry death of his wife (in a hospital -- due to lung disease) followed by his rather sententious poeticizing over her remains. I rather suspect that Naruse did not really intend his audience to admire Tochuken a great deal (as a human, in any event). The actor (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) comes across much more like a low-grade samurai (or yakuza) than an "artiste".

Miyamoto Musashi / Musashi Miyamoto (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1944)

A young brother and sister seek out great sword master (and wood carver) Musahi Miyamoto for instruction in swordcraft. As it turns out, their father has been wrongfully killed due to the machinations of Kojiro Sasaki (a well-connected samurai -- with a band of flunkies). Miyamoto agrees to teach the two -- but before they make much progress, Sasaki's minions murder the brother. Shocked and angry, Miyamoto assures the sister he will punish Sasaki for his misdeeds. After securing approval from the authorities, he challenges Sasaki to a duel. Sasaki, not wanting to play fair, sends some of his crew to waylay Miyamoto -- a plan that fails (of course). Then Miyamaoto sets off to Ganryu Island alone (with only his boatman), as the sister awaits his return anxiously.

The brother here is not especially well played (foreshadowing the weak performance of the son in "Sansho"), there are a few dramatic infelicities, and Mizoguchi will win no awards for direction of action scenes. All the same, these niggles are relatively minor -- and this neglected Mizogudchi film turned out to be a real treat. The acting is otherwise excellent -- Kinuyo Tanaka (as the sister), Chojuro Kawarasaki (as Miyamoto) and Kanemon Nakamura (as Sasaki). And the cinematography is gorgeous (perhaps somewhat inspired by Naruse's recent "Song Lantern").

A link to lots of screen shots:

Niluohe nuer / Daughter of the Nile (HOU Hsiao-hsien, 1987)

After a rocky introduction to Hou (trying to watch "Goodbye South, Goodbye" with inadequate preparation -- and when too tired), he has slowly but surely become one of my favorite contemporary directors. Unfortunately, his neglect in the English-speaking world has been pretty thoroughgoing -- making it hard to track down most of his work. Finally, however, at long last, I tracked down a copy of the last film I had not yet seen -- "Daughter of the Nile".

This turns out to be yet another "transitional film", looking both back to the early pop-music suffused romances and forward to the grittier urban-centered films still to come. It tells the story of a rather dysfunctional family. The father resorts to petty thievery, the mother has died, the elder brother (who could keep his father in check to some extent) has died. This leaves one brother (Jack Kao) operating a night club (with some rather shady friends), one late teen-aged sister (our heroine -- played by YANG Lin) working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant by day and taking classes in the evening, and one younger sister in middle school.

Lin has to try to hold things together -- almost on her own -- though luckily a reasonably canny grandfather (LI Tainlu) lives near enough to drop by from time to time. She is also pining after a buddy of her brother (who is in turn infatuated with the girl friend of a gangster). This study in female fortitude, in the face of adversity, is rather like some of the films of Mikio Naruse. A smaller scale film than the masterpiece that followed it (City of Sadness), it is still quite appealing and worthwhile.

So, having seen all 17 of Hou's films, I would have to say that no contemporary director I know of has a better record. While I clearly like some of the films more than others, there really are no weak links yet in Hou's output to date.

Qian li zou dan qi / Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (ZHANG Yimou, 2005)

We got the cheap mainland DVD of this months ago -- and enjoyed watching the film at home. But our family has a tradition of seeing each and every ZHANG Yimou film in the theater (in the first week -- as often there is no second week). This film, like the rest, was more powerful on the big screen than on the television (i.e., it made me sniffle more -- to the amusement of my children).

Japanese film icon Ken Takakura is marvelous here -- and Zhang makes brilliant use of him -- and of his linguistic discomfiture in a land where he understands no words (without the aid of translators and would-be translators). Moreover both the geography and the folk performances are absolutely wonderful when seen at "proper" size. A lot more sophisticated than one might think at first look -- and another remarkable accomplisment by Zhang Yimou.

Shusen no Lorelei / Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean (Shinji Higuchi & Cellin Gluck, 2005)

This is a (slightly) alternative history story -- set in the last week of WW2 -- right after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The deviation from real history? Some Japanese fanatics WANT Tokyo bombed -- and are working to sabotage both a prompt surrender and to turn over to the Americans a secret (submarine) weapon intended to disrupt the A-bombing of Tokyo. Koji Yakusho is the submarines's somewhat reluctant skipper (he's been relegated to a desk job for several years -- due to opposing the use of kamikaze tactics). Lots of other nice performances by Japanese character actors -- and by Yu Kashii (as a key component of the Japanese-German secret weapon). Downsides -- a little too much CGI, perhaps -- and I didn't particularly love the score. Not a great film -- but of some interest, especially in terms of sociology.

(revised on 9-17-2006)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Watched this week, September 4 - 10, 2006

Joyu to shijin / Actress and Poet (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Our hero here is Hiroshi Uruki, the nominal "poet" -- who writes children's songs and is also the somewhat hen-pecked husband of an actress (Sachiko Chiba). When not doing house chores, he dabbles at song-writing and chats with neighbors and friends (including Kamatari Fujiwara, who is currently way behind in the rent at his apartment). After one neighbor (an insurance salesman) sells a life insurance policy to a nice (but somewhat nervous) couple that have just moved into the neighborhood, Uruki celebrates with the neighbor and his chatty, nosy wife. After drinking lots of beer, the neighbor acts out one of Uruki's children's songs (played on a phonograph) about a tanuki (raccoon dog). Uruki is in a somewhat truculent mood when he gets home, but is too far gone to notice his wife's arrival.

The next morning, as Uruki tries to fix breakfast, his wife (who is clearly a late riser) insists he help her rehearse her lines for an upcoming performance. As they engage in simulated domestic violence, Fujiwara arrives luggage in hand, looking for someplace to stay (having been evicted) -- and overhearing their dispute, tries to make peace. The couple laughingly tells him it is just a rehearsal. Soon, however, a disagreement between Uruki and Chiba over whether to let Fujiwara lodge with them results in a real marital spat. Fujiwara, having taken a stroll while trouble was brewing, returns and sits down to watch the renewed "rehearsal" appreciatively. When the nosy neighbor lady overhears the commotion, she insists that he intervene -- but he re-assures her that is all just acting. So she too sits down to watch the oblivious domestic warriors. Meanwhile, the neighbor's husband has discovered that his nice young policy buyers committed double suicide overnight. When he tells his wife the news, the two of them get into a brawl over who is to blame for selling the improvident policy (the wife is the one that noticed the couple's arrival and prodded her husband to make his sales call).

The next morning, Chiba has gotten up first and is making breakfast for a change. As Fujiwara sleepily comes down the stairs from his room toward breakfast, he notes that the chit-chat in the downstairs room between reconciled actress and poet is becoming amorous -- so he decides he had best wait before entering the room.

This is not a major Naruse film, but it is an entertaining one (though the insertion of a suicide into the midst of a domestic comedy strikes one as a bit unusual)-- with exuberant performances by all the principals. Interestingly, the opening of this film pre-figures the opening of Ozu's "Tenement Gentleman" -- one hears and sees a man and a woman in the middle of some highly melodramatic situation -- but it turns out that we are just seeing a dramatic rehearsal in Chiba's living room. The cinematography by Hiroshi Suzuki (who worked with Naruse on numerous occasions between 1935 and 1952) is quite good (but a bit more restrained than that found in other Naruse films of the mid-30s).

Haru no mezame / Spring's Awakening (Mikio Naruse, 1947)

I enjoyed this charming film so much a couple of weeks ago that I decided I needed to watch it again. Young Yoshiko Kuga was just as delightful this time around -- as a rural high school girl having all the kind of experiences and problems one might expect her to have. I can't imagine what (if any) precedent there may have been for this simple, lifelike diary of an ordinary school girl. Too bad the recent retrospective passed over this little masterpiece -- it deserves to be better known.

Yuki fujin ezu / Portrait of Madame Yuki (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1950)

The new Japanese DVD of this film looks far nicer than any version I have seen before. If only it had been subbed (even in Japanese).

The main attractions of this film are the performances of Michiyo Kogure as Madame Yuki (a well-to-do woman inexplicably married to a crude and sometimes violent boor) and Yoshiko Kuga as Hamako (her new maid). Ken Uehara (as a musician who is dependent on Mme. Yuki's bounty) and Eijiro Yanagi (as the husband) are effective. The story is a bit muddled and not entirely convincing, but provides the excuse for lots of gorgeous cinematography by Joji Ohara. In terms of presentation, the use of Kuga as observer of all the upper-class decadence (rather than as a participant) is quite interesting.

Rabudo gan / Loved Gun (Kensaku Watanabe, 2004)

This story of an orphaned high school girl (Aoi Miyazaki) and a hit man she rescues (Masatoshi Nagase) strikes me as very Suzuki-inspired in terms of style. Miyazaki wants the young woman she holds responsible for the death of her parents bumped off -- and Nagase has his own issues with his foster-father (Ittoku Kishibe), who may have been responsible for the death of HIS parents. Meanwhile Kishibe's current protege (Hirofumi Arai) seems to have a grudge against both Kishibe and Nagase -- and there seem to be a couple of hapless gangsters bothering Kishibe. It is hard to tell whether this drama of revenge and forgiveness is borderline religious -- or cynical. My sense is that there are some rather deep feelings underlying this visually striking (and very stylish) film.