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: http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/ozu/message/2796
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)