Thursday, November 30, 2006

Watched November 20 - 26, 2006

Jun'ai monogatari / The Story of Pure Love (Tadashi Imai, 1957)

Two teen-aged war orphans (played by Shinjiro Ebara and Hitomi Nakahara) try to survive on the fringes of Tokyo, not surprisingly becoming juvenile delinquents. Nakahara has worked as a pickpocket since her grandparents died (when she was still just a child). Ebara has already been in and out of reform school several times. Nakahara's pickpocketing skills are, somewhat mysteriously, waning -- as she becomes more and more clumsy (aggravating her gang mates). Ebara rescues her from her own gang, but the two fall into trouble with the law again, resulting in their separation. Well-intentioned criminal justice officials try to keep them apart, considering them to be bad influences on each other. Actually, however, each provides an incentive for the other to go straight. As Ebara learns a trade, Nakahara grows increasingly weaker. As it turns out, she had visited Hiroshima with her grandparents just three days after the bomb was dropped there, searching in vain for her missing mother. A very well-done tearjerker that initially got some Western recognition (winning a prize at the Berlin Film Festival) but which was subsequently forgotten. Quite enjoyable overall.

Seung fei / Princess D (Sylvia Chang & Alan Yuen, 2002)

Daniel Wu plays Joker, a computer graphics artist trying to design the perfect animated heroine (for an advertising campaign). By chance, he runs across Ling (Angelica Lee), who (sort of) embodies the characteristics of the character he wants to create. Complications arise from the antics of Joker's good-hearted but not very responsible younger brother Kid (Edison Chen) and Ling's petty hood brother. Ling's life is further burdened by her father (who is in prison for some sort of financial finagling) and mother (who seems to have premature Alzheimer's syndrome). Luckily, The father of Joker and Kid (the marvelous Anthony Wong) provides plenty of sympathy and understanding for all concerned (one of the most loveable cinematic father portrayals ever, I suspect). Fine perfornaces and some cute bits of animation. The plot is interesting, if sometimes just a little cumbersome.

Ye yan / The Banquet (FENG Xiaogang, 2006)

This (very) loose adaptation of Hamlet, transported to ancient China (around 900 A.D.) looks gorgeous and has some fine performances by ZHANG Ziyi, GE You, Daniel Wu and ZHOU Xun. But the film is seriously undermined by the script, both in terms of plot and dialogue.

Hao qi hai shi mao / Curiosity Kills the Cat (ZHANG Yibai, 2006)

Zhang's second film builds on the promise of his first (Spring Subway). Set in Chongqing,it tells the story primarily of a man who married into a well-off family (HU Jun), his wife (Carinna Lau) and his mistress (a manicurist -- played by SONG Jia). Also entangled in this story, a somewhat snoopy young photoshop girl (17 year old LIN Yuan) and a not very worldly-wise security guard (LIAO Fan), who Lin seems to have a crush on. The story in shown from four perspectives in turn -- each moiving the story further ahead and filling in undisclosed information. Generally this works well (but there is one nagging seeming-inconsistency that still bothers me). Good (understated) performances. Definitely worthwhile -- though the mainland DVD is not a state of the art one (but does at least have passable subtitles).

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).

Monday, November 13, 2006

Watched November 6 - 12, 2006

Hataraku ikka / the Whole Family Works (Mikio Naruse 1939)

More proto-neo-realism from Japan. A working class family with lots of children (mostly boys) has to struggle to make ends meet. The father seems chronically under-employed -- and depends on the older sons to help support the family. When a teacher pushes the fourth son to attend high school rather than go to work, familial strife ensues -- as the older boys also decide they want to continue their educations, rather than being stuck in the same cycle of poverty as their parents. Neither parents not children are wrong -- but their needs seem irreconciliable. Not heavy-handed, but laced with lots of passing humor -- with an enigmatic ending that struck home with my wife and myself (children doing hyperactive gymnastics in their room -- while parents below wonder whether the ceiling will cave in on their heads).

Ningen Johatsu / A Man Vanishes (Shohei Imamura, 1967)

Imamura loves to pull the rug out from under his viewer's feet -- and nowhere does he does this more audaciously than he does in this ostensible documentary about one "ordinary" white collar worker who vanished -- and his fiancee's search for him egged on by Imamura's investigator (actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi). Despite calling upon both experts and mediums, little progress is made -- though the search causes friction between the fiancee and her sister. Then, as the end draws near, Imamura pulls the props under the film out (in a way that Fukasaku borrowed in his own 1982 The Fall Guy).

Akage no An / Anne of Green Gables (Isao Takahata, 1979), Episodes 25-30

Possibly the best Japanese animated adaptation of a Western literary classic. We have now passed the mid-point -- and Anne has weathered her green hair crisis. The series' evocation of the tangible reality of the Prince Edward Island landscape is positively uncanny.

Hana yori dango / Boys Over Flowers (Yoko Kamio, writer & Shigeyasu Yamauchi, director, 1996), Episodes 1 to 8

One of my children's friends needs to see this -- so we are all re-watching this classic, wonderfully written but parsimoniously animated, Pride-and_Prejudice-inspired shoujo manga adaptation. This looks very much like a descendant of Takahata's Anne. Always fun to re-watch.

Yeojaneun namjaui miraeda / Woman is the Future of Man (HONG Sang-soo, 2004)

Initially dismissed by some as "slighter" than his earlier work, this is nonetheless one of my favorites. Once again, Hong dissects male sexual foolishness. A (mostly) very funny (if sometimes painfully so) film -- with one of the most gorgeous sound tracks of any recent film.

Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin / Letter From an Unknown Woman (XU Jinglei, 2004)

I have yet to see Ophuls' adaptation of Stefan Zweig's story -- but it is hard to imagine a better adaptation (here the story is transposed to China in the latter 1930s through the early 1950s). Young actress Xu stars (as the adult heroine) as well as directs. I originally saw this unsubbed -- and her visual story telling was so transparent I followed almost everything (but did miss one key point revealed in the narration -- the source of the male protagonist's birthday bouquet of white roses). Utterly beautiful cinematography by Mark LEE Ping Bin.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Watched October 30 - November 5, 2006

So This Is Paris (Ernst Lubitsch, 1926)

Lubitch at his most light-hearted -- in this very very loose adaptation of the same French play that gave the world Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus". The four principals - Monte Blue, Patsy Ruth Miller, Lilyan Tashman and George Beranger -- are utterly perfect (and Myrna Loy appears as a maid -- in one her earliest roles). The sardonic intertitles are often a treasure in their own right.

Feet First (Clyde Bruckman, 1930)

This early Harold Lloyd sound films re-traces "Safety Last" to a considerable extent. But the high-altitude daredevil stunts just go on to long for me.

Shukujo to hige / The Lady and the Beard (Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

Of all Ozu's surviving films, this may be his most purely comic film. No deep messages, but with superb performances (especially from Tokihiko Okada, our bearded hero, and Hiroko Kawasaki, our virtuous but practical, kinono-clad secretary) and utterly entertaining. As with Yamanaka's "Million Ryo Pot", one can clearly see Lubitsch's impact on Japan's western-oriented film makers here.

Munekata shimai / Munekata Sisters (Yasujiro Ozu, 1950)

Possibly Ozu's dullest (surviving) film. Ozu made this on loan to the new (and short-lived) Shintoho -- and they wanted a glossy adaptation of a then-popular novel that stuck closely to the books plot (and dialogue). Shintoho also picked Ozu's cast (a great one -- on paper) and crew. Though Ozu undoubtedly this his best shot, the dialog is stilted and the performances (from Kinuyo Tanaka, Hideko Takamine, Ken Uehara, So Yamamura and Chishu Ryu) are generally lackluster and unconvincing. While therre are some lovely shots, the pacing is pedestrian.

Man of Destiny (Desmond Davis, 1981)

One of the best performances (of those I've seen so far) from the new 10-play set of Shaw plays issued by BBC. Simon Callow (as Napoleon) and Delphine Seyrig (as the "mysterious lady" trying to intercept a compromising letter) are simply superb -- as are the two supporting cast members in this short-ish historical romance (or anti-romance). Perhaps even better presented than the delightful "You Never Can Tell" from this set (which we re-watched in order to show off to one of my children's friends).

Les noces de papier / Paper Wedding (Michel Brault, 1989)

The story of a South American political refugee (Manuel Aranguiz) with visa problems and a professor (Geneviève Bujold) who marries him to help him hang on to his right to reside in Canada. Unfortunately, the immigration bureau is not convinced of the bona fides of their marriage. In the process of learning enough about each other to fool the immigration judge that their relationship is legitimate, these two rather lonely people begin to care about each other in reality.

Though largely unknown south of the 49th parallel, Brault might just be the greatest living Canadian director (of feature films). While this film is softer-edged (and more fairy tale like) than Brault's earlier quasi-documentary work, it is nonetheless a wonderful film. And it is always a pleasure to see Bujold in a worthy film.