Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Monday, December 18, 2006

Watched December 11 - December 17, 2006

Kazoku / Where Spring Comes Late literally A Family (Yoji Yamada, 1970)

This early Yamada film tells the story of a Catholic family from a village near Nagasaki (Kyushu) that moves to Hokkaido. The father of the family (Hisashi Igawa) decides his mining job is a dead end, and decides to join some fellow villagers who have already moved to Japan's far north to establish a farming community. So he, his wife (Chieko Baisho), their toddler, their new baby and Grandpa (Chishu Ryu) set off -- by a variety of ferries and trains (big and small) -- for their new home. Set right at the time the film was made (they spend a bit of time in Osaka gawking at Expo 70, the world's fair then taking place in Japan), large sections of this film look and feel very much like a documentary. The family's trip is long and eventful -- and at one point moves into extreme melodrama. A fascinating glimpse of everyday Japan at the dawn of the 70s, it is not quite as polished as Kokyô / Home from the Sea (which featured the same trio of lead performers), but is still well worth seeing.

Dauntaun hirozu / Downtown Heroes (Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Set on Shikoku in 1948, this chronicles the last year of an old-style (German-modeled) boy's residential high school. The film centers on several of the male students -- and two young women who complicate their lives. The first is a young prostitute (Eri Ishida) who they rescue (and hide) from her yakuza pimp and his gang of thugs. The other is a student from the local girls' high school (the young , but already veteran, Hiroko Yakushimaru). The center-piece of the film is a dramatic piece (an Alpine melodrama of some sort, written by one of the students) to be staged at the annual cultural festival. Kiyoshi Atsumi (better known as Tora-san) plays a school janitor and cook -- who elbows his way into the production as an old Gypsy woman -- and proceeds to mug shamelessly. A very engaging and likeable little film -- but I never could figure out the relevance of its title (as this is a decidedly un-urban film).

Am zin / Running Out Of Time (Johnnie To, 1999)

A re-viewing of one of my favorite To films (first watched when two of our children were away for the summer, working as camp counselors). Andy Lau is excellent as a master thief whose time is running out (due terminal cancer) who plays a high-stakes cat and mouse game with an ace police negotiator (LAU Ching Wan) -- in order to avenge the death of his father at the hands of gangsters. One of To's best "action" films -- as usual offering a lot more than mere action.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Watched December 4 - December 10, 2006

Ce jour-là / That Day (Raoul Ruiz, 2003)
Klimt (Raoul Ruiz, 2006)

I have no hesitation in categorizing Ce jour-là as a masterpiece. Unique -- but (in part) rather like a mix of Bunuel, Rivette and Durenmatt, this tells the story of a scatty young heiress (Elsa Zylberstein), her greedy family (headed by papa Michel Piccoli), a deranged killer (Bernard Giraudeau) and a couple of seemingly indolent police officials (Jean-Luc Bideau and Christian Vadim). Released from the asylum so he can kill Zylberstein, Giraudeau instead becomes her protector. Often macabre, but very funny.

Klimt purportedly tells the story of the noted art nouveau painter (played by John Malkovich). It looks great -- but any resemblances to biographical fact are probably inadvertent. More a fever dream (which it may be) than a coherent narrative. Nikolai Kinski (Klaus's son) steals the show (whenever onscreen) as the young painter Egon Schiele.

Hana yori mo naho literally Even More Than Flowers (Hirokazu Kore'eda, 2006)

Following Yoji Yamada's lead, Kore'eda travels back into the past -- to the dawn of the 1700s. One sees sign not only of Yamada's inluence here, but also of the director who inspired Yamada himself -- Sadao Yamanaka. What we see here is the bottom rung of the samurai world, depicted with plenty of both humor and pathos. Our protagonist is Soza Aoki (Junichi Okada), who is expected by his clan to find and kill the man who killed his father in a brawl. Though he has not made much progress on his quest, he has made the acquaintance of a pretty widow (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son (who idolizes him). To keep busy, he has been running a school of sorts for the townsfolk, much to the disgust of the other down and out samurai in the neighborhood (some of the 47 Loyal Ronin -- biding their time in poverty, waiting for orders). His fellow samurai are also annoyed by his obvious lack of martialskills. When Aoki does discover his foe (Tadanobu Asano), he also discovers that the man is living virtuously with a widow (working as a commoner) and has "adopted" her son. To complicate matters, the two boys become friends. His dilemma, how to satisfy his relatives -- and yet not do any real harm.

this is a thoroughly enjoyable film. If a few spots are a little slow, they serve to give a flavor of the time in question. The Japanese new DVD looks quite good -- and has fine subtitles.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Watched November 27 - December 3, 2006

Wasei kenka tomodachi / Fighting Friends, Japanese Style (Yasujiro Ozu, 1929)
Tokkan kozo / A Straightforward Boy (Yasujiro Ozu, 1929)

Two short, incomplete "nonsense" comedies by Ozu. Both foreshadow future films -- albeit in different ways.

The first involves two proletarian friends who fall for the same (homeless) young woman. At first, this disrupts their friendship -- but then when she falls in love with another young neighbor (more handsome and better educated), they work together to ensure her happiness. We will see plot elements and visual motifs from this recur in the great films of the 30s -- most notably in "Passing Fancy".

"Tokkan kozo" is a very loose adaptation of O. Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief" -- with a very young Tomio Aoki as the kidnapped child from Hell. Not only does this early film introduce us to Aoki (who would be an Ozu regular for the next eight years), but also to Tatsuo Saito (Ozu's first regular leading actor) and Takeshi Sakamoto (his second recurring leading actor) as the ill-fated kidnappers.

Even if absolutely complete, these would probably not constitute "major works" -- but even incomplete they afford considerable enjoyment -- and demonstrate Ozu's solid roots in the silent comedies of Hollywood.

Hana-kago no uta / Song of the Flower Basket (Heinosuke Gosho, 1937)

Gosho strikes me as an inconsistent director. Especially when he feels he has something important to "say" in a film, his work tends to get overly plot-heavy and overly wordy -- despite many moments of visual beauty. But when he deals with relatively inconsequential fluff, his work can be enchanting. This story centers around Kinuyo Tanaka, a waitress at her father's don-katsu restaurant. It depicts her dealings with her family (including an aunt and uncle wanting to marry her off suitably) and three handsome young (and poor) suitors -- Chishu Ryu, Shujio Sano and Shin Tokudajii. Nothing earthshaking here -- but thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

Cheryomushki (Rappaport, 1963)

My favorite film musical -- ever. The tale of ordinary folk dreaming of an apartment (and bathroom) of their own. The Title refers to the name of the promised land -- poetically named Cheryomushki (Cherry Town) -- a real suburban housing development in the suburbs of Moscow, started in the late Stalin era. See: http://www.realestate.moscowtimes.ru/homeeditions/catalog/11

Greedy bureaucrats are out to thwart expectations, but all turns out well -- for all but the connivers (and the gold-digger wife of one of them). Some evocations of Wilson's "the Music Man" (among other Hollywood influences) -- as our principal hero (Vladimir Vasiliev) is a bit of a trickster and our heroine (Olga Zabotkina) is a prim museum curator. But the music is Shostakovich at his most tuneful and rollicking. A few screenshots:



Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi / The Yellow Handkerchief (Yoji Yamada, 1977)

One of Yoji Yamada's most beloved comic melodramas (not quite a romantic comedy, despite plenty of comic moments). Ken Takakura plays a man just released from prison (for manslaughter) debating whether he should visit his ex-wife (Chieko Baisho). He insisted that she divorce him, after he was convicted -- so she could be "free" to go on with her life). Along the way, he is adopted by two aimless wayfarers touring Hokkaido Island -- Tetsuya Takeda (who has just gotten dumped by his girl friend) and Kaori Momoi (a hitchiker Takeda picked up, who has just dumped by her boyfriend). Plenty of giggles and sniffles as the trio makes their way towards Takamura's former home (with Takakura always on the verge of chickening out from the visit, afraid he might discover his ex-wife really _has_ moved on).

Ahiru no waltz / The Duck's Waltz (2006)

A wonderful little animated film about a young secretary and her pet duck, who share dreams of Paris -- set to a song sung by Aoi Miyazaki (Eureka, Nana). This is an outgrowth of an advertisement she made for AFLAC -- but transcends its origin: