Sunday, October 29, 2006

Watched October 23-29, 2006

Haru no mezame / Spring Awakens (Mikio Naruse, 1947)

I watched this unsubtitled film with a visitor (Don Sallitt, a fellow Naruse fanatic -- and a director) for whom I tried to provide a running (very loose) translation. Despite several prior viewings, I run onto the rocks with a couple of final conversational scenes -- just as the plot has taken a bit of a veer. (I don't feel too bad -- as the few published notes on this film are almost totally wrong in their plot comments). While I feel comfortable that I can mostly follow what happens here, Dan (not so used to the uncharted waters of watching unsubbed cinema) wasn't entirely convinced, I fear.

Regardless of total comprehension, this unheralded film (which didn't make it into even the fullest versions of the traveling centenary retrospective) is almost certainly one of Naruse's greatest films of the 40s -- and a genuine (if small) masterpiece. It is, as far as I can tell, a remarkably innovative film -- in that it seems to present a teenager's eye view of teenage life -- centered around the ordinary activities of a one particular high school girl (future star Yoshiko Kuga -- at the age of 16).

Formally, it displays a lightness and looseness (and love of ellipses) that rivals the best of Shimizu's work. And the teen performances (most seemingly by amateurs or near-amateurs) are remarkably unaffected and natural. I wish I knew Japanese well enought to create full subtitles (and had the software to add them to the film on DVD). This charming and beautiful film deserves to be far better known. Having been ignored even during Naruse's 100th birthday year, will it need to wait another 50 years or so to get re-assessed (and properly appreciated) at last. I hope not.

Shizukanaru ketto / The Quiet Duel (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

This generally overlooked early Kurosawa film was an unexpected pleasure. Mifune here is a young doctor, working with his father (Takashi Shimura) at a clinic. During the war, he got infected with syphilis, while operating (with an injured hand) on an infected patient. Now, back at home, he cannot marry his long-suffering fiance -- and won't tell her the reason why, for fear she will selflessly decide to wait until he is fully recovered (which may not ever happen). Meanwhile, a young pregnant woman who is serving as a nurse's aide (the wonderful and spunky Noriko Sengoku), initially angry and resentful towards her rescuer (Mifune saved her life her after a suicide attempt following a romantic debacle), gradually learns Mifune's true nature and begins to fall in love with him herself.

Despite a few overwrought patches here and there (not surprising, considering the plot), I absolutely loved this. Like much of Kurosawa's pre-Rashomon work, this has gotten short shrift critically. Ironically, I much prefer many of these films (for example -- this, "No Regrets for Our Youth", "Stray Dog", and "Scandal") to "Rashomon".

Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo / Profound Desire of the Gods (Shohei Imamura, 1968)

An often raucous and vulgar, seriously weird, and visually stunning film -- this practically killed off Imamura's career. Over-budget, over-long and far too outlandish for audience tastes, this was a massive flop when released. It tells the story of an engineer sent to a small, remote Southern Japanese island to supervise a water project -- due to a long-lasting drought. The drought may (or may not) be due to a curse placed on the superstition-filled islanders by their gods -- due to the misdeeds of a particularly incest-ridden family (which has a problematic status, despite producing shamanesses needed for local rituals). It seems to me to have quite a few interesting links to Teshigahara's Woman of the Dunes, in that the engineer becomes entnagled in island affairs by a young, buxom (if somewhat mentally challenged) island woman.

Merry-Go-Round (Jacques Rivette, 1981)

Being in English much of the time didn't help make this often mystifying (but visually lovely) film any clearer than Rivette films all in French. Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider collaborate and compete to try to find the hidden ill-gotten gains of her Schneider's father. Meanwhile, the older sisters of both have their own schemes brewing. Not really worth "figuring out", but rather a film more for simply sitting back and enjoying the ride. with a marvelous score (avant-garde jazz, modern classical music?) by a duo consisting of a double bass player and a baritone saxophonist -- who perform on screen every now and then (albeit apparently outside the). world of the narrative

Kazoku gêmu / The Family Game (Yoshimitsu Morita, 1983)

A much acclaimed satire -- I found it quite disappointing. The concept (showing up the flaws of the typical middle class family -- and the Japanese educational system) seemed more important to the director than the execution. Possibly inspired by Bunuel and Masumura, but not remotely in the same league.

A Shaw Festival -- part one

You Never Can Tell (James Cellan Jones, 1977)
Heartbreak House (Cedric Messina, 1977)
Androcles and the Lion (1984)
Arms and the Man (James Cellan Jones, 1989)

This 10-play BBC Shaw set (around a fifth of his plays) is veryinexpensive and quite worth the price. Of the performances watched so far, our family unanimously chose
You Never Can Tell as the brightest gem. A "lesser play" by reputation, it is nonetheless one of Shaw's funniest comedies (trying to out-Wilde Oscar Wilde, perhaps) -- and the cast was as close to perfect as one could ever hope for (including Robert Powell, Kika Markham, Kate Nicholls, Richard Everett, Cyril Cusack, Patrick Magee, Judy Parfitt, Warren Clarke). The cast for Heatrbreak House was also superb (John Gielgud, Sian Phillips, Barbara Murray, Lesley Anne Down et al) -- and the only down-side of the performance was its occasional visual clunkiness. Arms and the Man was decent -- but didn't catch the play's magic fully. Androcles and the Lion was mostly just passable.

A bonus, recordings of a couple of real Shaw speeches show off his wonderful voice. ;~}

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Watched October 16-22, 2006

Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo / The Pot Worth a Million Ryo (Sadao Yamanaka, 1935)

One of the funniest historical comedies ever made. A samurai lord gives away an unprepossessing-looking heirloom pot to a younger brother as a (stingy) wedding present. Shortly afterwards, he discovers the pot actually served as a clue to finding an immense hidden treasure (one million ryo). He sends an emissary to reclaim the pot. only to find his brother's young wife has sold it to junk collectors. Meanwhile, the young man is feeling a bit smothered by his wife's solicitude -- and welcomes the chance to go out and search for the pot. As it turns out, the pot has wound up in the household in which Tange Sazen (a one-eyed, one-armed, and comically lazy samurai sword master) resides. Tanga Sazen lives with a lady friend who runs an archery gallery -- and the two of them acquire an orphaned boy, who uses the sought-for pot as a fishbowl for his gold fish.

No plot summary can do justice to this revisionist comedy (which seems to have a serious core despite its surface frivolity). Not only doies it have a superb script, it is beautifully shot (by Jun Yasumoto -- who would later do great work for Naruse and Inagaki) and directed -- and perfectly performed by Denjirô Ôkôchi (as Tange Sazen) and the rest of the wonderful cast.

Da nao tian gong / Uproar in Heaven (WAI Lai-ming, 1965)

A delightful surprise. One of the most lovely and entertaining animated films I've ever encountered. Made in Shanghai, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, this tells the story of the Monkey King's difficulties with the Jade Emperor (whose court was in heaven) due to his lack of deference. Colorful and delightful, practically perfect.

Toki o kakeru shôjo / The Little Girl Who Conquered Time / Girl of Time (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1983)

A disappointment, a passably decent science fiction idea (an ordinary high school girl begins to experience events before they really happen) executed in a generally mediocre fashion. While the acting was okay, the script and direction were mediocre and the special effects were too often simply dreadful. We in the West forget that this sort of ephemeral fluff is the real norm of Japanese cinema -- not the (often not terribly popular) masterpieces we think must be typical.

Goo laam gwa lui / Needing You (Johnnie To & WAI Ka Fai, 2000)

An utterly delightful romance starring Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Lau is a section chief (and super salesman) for a computer company. Cheng is an employee with romantic problems and an extemely annouying family (for whom she appears to be the chief breadwinner -- as both her parents are seemingly unemployed and her younger siblings are still in school). Initially the two get on each others' nerves, but they soon find that they are growing fond of each other. Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth -- and Lau's "colleagues" (led by regular To "bad guy" LAM Suet) are conniving to bring him down -- to cover up their own screw-ups. Unfortunately our copy of this DVD skips 13 minutes in the middle of the film (though the material is on the disc -- and can be watched if one views the raw files on one's computer). so, while I can recommend the film highly, I would caution you against the Tai Seng DVD on sale in the US.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Watched October 9-15, 2006

Paris nous appartient / Paris Belongs To Us (Jacques Rivette, 1960)

Rivette started making his first feature film not long after the science fiction stories of Philip K. Dick made their first appearance in Paris. While this film does not track any specific story, it not only creates the paranoid ambience characteristic of Dick's fictional universe, it also has a whacked-out emigre American author as a main character (whose initials are P. K -- for Philip Kaufman). Many features of Rivette's later work show up here -- including preoccupation with staging classical drama and the existence of sinister conspiracies looming somewhere in the background (and sometimes foreground).

The new UK DVD of this film makes it look markedly better than any previous incarnation -- and it contains the full version of the film (as opposed to the American one, which was missing 20 or so minutes).

Joi gin a long / Where a Good Man Goes (Johnnie To, 1999)

A romance starring Sean LAU Ching Wan and Ruby WONG Cheuk Ling. He is a mobster just out of jail. She is a single mother with a young son, who runs a small (none too prosperous) inn in Macau. They meet when he is involved in an altercation with a taxi cab driver (and his buddies) outside the inn. He decides to stay at the inn for a while -- and proves to be a rather obstreperous and demanding guest at first. Gradually, however, he grows fond of the inn -- and its proprietor (and her son). He begins to contemplate living life honestly -- but runs into various complications, not least of which is a police inspector out to get him (LAM Suet). An entertaining and sweet film -- that keeps you guessing until the very end as to whether this will have a happy or sad ending.

Su-ki-da / I-Love-You (Hiroshi Ishikawa, 2005)

This film starts with the story of two 17 year-old provincial high school students -- Yu (Aoi Miyazaki) and Yosuke (Eita). He is learning to play guitar. She likes him (and likes to listen to him rehearsing-- under a bridge -- each day), he considers her a friend, but has somewhat of a crush on her older sister, who is still uncovering an unhappy romance. We follow their story until circumstances wrench them apart -- and then move forward another 17 years, when the paths of Yu and Yosuke (now played by Hiromi Nagasaku and Hidetoshi Nishijima) cross again, quite accidentally, in the big city (both are tangentially involved in the music business). Will they re-unite -- or not?

Interestingly, the two stars here are the young Yu (Miyazaki) and older Yosuke (Nishijima) -- but they meet only in the DVD's extras (which includes a joint interview-- in which they talk about the key kiss in each segment). The script seems to have some lapses, but this is well-shot and well acted. Young Aoi Miyazaki seems to be the most camera savvy (and most adept at acting) here -- takes that prominently feature her are far longer than those that don't. The director trusts her to slowly build reactions in real-time, where her older counter-part's comparable scenes are assembled out of rather short shots.

The Maltese Falcon (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)
Satan Met a Lady (William Dieterle, 1936)
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

Huston's version of "Falcon" has been one of my favorite American films for decades -- and I've never seen it look better than in its new DVD incarnation.

The new set provides a couple of interesting appendices -- the two earlier film versions. The first mostly falls flat -- a wonderful trio of actresses (Bebe Daniels, Una Merkel and Thelma Todd) are insufficient to make up for the miscasting of Spade (Ricardo Cortez) and the generally lackluster cinematography and direction.

"Satan" is a parody of the original film (more or less) that sometimes verges on just plain silly, but more often proves a lot of goofy fun. As with the first version, I prefer the female side of the cast -- especially the delightfully ditzy Marie Wilson -- who literally steals the show as Spade's secretary. Of course, Spade is not Spade here -- but Shane (played by Warren William), a combination of con man and detective, with a distinctly upper class tone. Alison Skipworth is also a hoot -- as a female version of Gutman. Bette Davis appears as the "villainess" -- and seems to mostly have a good time larking about.

The original, which I watched after its predecessors, is almost perfect. Almost. Casting, pacing, cinematography, all wonderful. But then there is that grand finale -- which I have never ever been able to believe. I've never been convinced (despite all the heavy-duty emoting) that Spade cares the tiniest bit for Brigid O'Shaughnessy nor she for him -- and after the revisionist ending of "Satan" (the best of the lot, in terms of sheer fun -- and common sense), I am even less satisfied. But this is mainly Hammett's fault, I think. Despite the unsatsifying ending, no less a favorite than ever.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Watched October 2-8, 2006

Moved on to Out 1, parts 3-4. Jean-Pierre Léaud is a hoot as a pan handler who extorts donations from cafe patrons by means of very obnoxious harmonica assaults. Juliet Berto (Celine and Julie) is also charming -- as another sort of schemer.

El ángel exterminador (Luis Buñuel, 1962)

The new UK DVD stupidly excises LB's deliberate re-showing of the arrival of guests early on -- under the misapprehension that he made an editing goof that needed "correcting" (apparently following routine British practice). Otherwise, though, this looks vastly better than the prior VHS version.

Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Jacques Rivette, 1974)

I liked this more than ever on this revisitation. ;~}

Tian ruo you qing III feng huo jia ren / Moment of Romance III (Johnnie To, 1996)

A wonderful romance set in WW2 China -- with Andy Lau as a scion of a wealthy family serving as a pilot (somewhat to the chagrin of his wealthy mother) who makes an emergency landing near a rural village and rescued (and nursed back to health) by Jacqueline Wu (an orphan -- who is loved by the son of the village chief). He eventually returns to town -- and turns down a promotion to a desk job (which his mother has engineered -- to keep him safe). Our heroine, meanwhile, decides to go to town to find him -- arriving just as townspeople are being warned of the need to evacuate soon (as the Japanese forces are getting perilously close). As usual with To's films -- one is kept guessing until the last moment whether there will be a happy or sad ending. ;~}

Watched September 25 - October 1, 2006

Started re-watching Beating Heart, a Korean show about one "ordinary" middle-class family -- that is actually six inter-connected films (each written and directed by a different team). Starring (among others) BAE Doo-na (Take Care of My Cat, Linda Linda Linda) and BAE Jong-ok (Jealousy is my Middle Name).
Two episodes seen.

Started watching Rivette's Out 1: Noli me tangere. Episodes 1-2 seen. Funnier than I expected (but no less weird than I imagined).