Saturday, November 18, 2006

Watched November 13 - 19, 2006

Chiyari Fuji / A Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji (Tomu Uchida, 1955)

Uchida's comeback film (after a long period of self-imposed exile in Manchuria and serious health problems) was produced by his long-time friends and colleagues Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu and Daisuke Ito. This humanistic, revisionist samurai film looks back to the work of Sadao Yamanaka and forward to the recent work of Yoji Yamada. In my opinion it is a masterpiece.

Kojuro (Eijiro Kataoka) is a good-hearted, but undisciplined young samurai on a mission to deliver a tea bowl to Tokyo for his clan lord. He is traveling there, along the Tokaido Road, with his two retainers -- his lance bearer, the middle-aged Gonpachi (Chiezo Kataoka), and his aide Genta (Daisuke Kato). Along the way, they encounter people of every rank -- and even pick up some traveling companions (including an young orphaned boy and a traveling musician with her little daughter). They have various adventures, ranging from comic (a group of nobles blocks traffic as they hold a Fuji viewing tea party in the middle of the road) to suspenseful (apprehension of a wily master thief, disguised a monk on a pilgrimage) to heroic (the rescue of a young woman being sold into slavery by her impoverished father). Kojuru's experiences given him greater sympathy for commoners, but tragically do not increase his wisdom. A well-intention, but rash gesture leads to tragedy.

Uchida made silent films for many years -- and his style here is rooted (in a very fine and beautiful way) in his experience during the silent era. Despite the lack of English subtitles (French only), the story line was crystal clear. The pacing was natural and easy-going, in a fashion reminiscent of Shimizu (who was slated to film this originally, but who happily handed the film to Uchida when he finally returned to Japan). Almost certainly one of the best historical films ever made in Japan.

Kumo ga chigireru toki / As the Clouds Scatter (Heinosuke Gosho, 1961)

The cast here is excellent (headed by Keiji Sada, Ineko Arima, Chieko Baisho and Fumio Watanabe), but the film exhibits Gosho's most problematic characteristic -- the tendency to get bogged down in scripts burdened with far too much "plot").

Sada is a bus driver on a rural (sometimes precipitous route) and Baisho is his chipper conductress (who has long had a secret crush on him). Watanabe is an older colleague, mentor and friend. Arima initially appears as a mysterious passenger (hiding behind sunglasses and a scarf) on her way to a mountain spa resort. Despite her attempts at disguise, Sada thinks her recognizes Arima -- who was his childhood neighbor and friend, who he later fell in love with. As it turns out, Arima got married during the war (to Tatsuya Nakadai) and had a child. After the war, the child falls ill, and Arima has to take desperate steps to make money to pay for medical care. Back in the present, things simply get more and more complicated -- and just when one is led to believe a moderately happy ending might be in sight, gratuitous misfortune heavy handedly intervenes yet again.

Le moine et le poisson / The Monk and the Fish (Michael Dudok de Wit, 1994)
Father and Daughter (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2000)

Two wonderful little wordless animated films. The first depicts a monk's obsessed efforts to catch a fish. The second shows us a girl who waits patiently for her father -- who rowed off into the distance in her childhood -- as she gets older. She grows up, marries, and becomes old herself -- but she never forgets to look for her father at the dock he left from. Inspired, non-industrial animation in the vein of Back and Norstein.

Say, Marimo (Atsushi Sanada, 2005) from Inu no eiga (anthology film, 2005) (viewed on Google Video)

A little ten minute short, divided into two parts with a brief epilogue. Part one is "narrated" (via intertitles only) by a girl, who retraces her relationship with her dog, beginning with her first meeting (when she was three or so and her dog was still just a baby) and covering the next 15 or so years. The girl's memories are tinged with anger, due to unresolved grief. Part two covers the same ground, this time with the dog's intertitled narration. Her tone is one of gratitude and affection. One memory stands out for both, a blissful single visit to the ocean together. The epilogue finds the girl (at this stage played by Aoi Miyazaki) by herself -- at the edge of the sea, where she addresses her dog (Marimo).

I'm a sentimental fool, I can barely type this little comment without getting my keyboard damp. (Disclaimer -- I got a puppy when I was little myself -- and now have a dog who came to live with us as puppy my when my youngest children were three and who is now 15 years old).

Haebyonui yoin / Woman on the Beach (HONG Sang-soo, 2006)

Hong's latest film is probably (at least on the surface) his "simplest" yet. A director, struggling with a script, invites a buddy (who is a writer) to help provide some advice and moral support. The friend was supposed to go on an outing with a female friend (who is a musician and composer) -- so he brings her along too. Their destination turns out to be a somewhat rundown beach resort on Korea's west coast. A menage a trois (sort of) develops and then becomes more complicated (after the female friend goes back to town -- and the director casts his eye on a rather similar looking young woman who has just come to the resort). The film takes an uncharacteristic turn into Rivette territory, as our heroine makes a bit of an overland trek through a forest, and the two women develop a wary bond with each other.

No final opinion -- it will take a while (and another viewing or two). Nice performances and (as usual) a wonderful score.

Fengkuang de shitou / Crazy Stone (NING Hao, 2006)

Supposedly one of the biggest hits in the Chinese-speaking world at the moment -- this a blend of Hollywood and Hong Kong (especially Johnnie To's work). Vigorously entertaining (and a bit hyperactive), this has none of To's subtlety or visual brilliance. The characters are more like live-action cartoon figures (one thinks of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote at times). Probably not enough substance to warrant re-watching, but the cheap Chinese DVD provide more than ample amusement for ouur family to justify its minimal cost).

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