Sunday, February 25, 2007

Watched February 19-25, 2007

Ai yori ai e (Yasujiro Shimazu, 1938) (no established English title -- possibly something like "From Love to Love")

Shuji Sano and Sanae Takasugi want to get married -- but have a number of problems. He is not having much luck with career as a self-employed writer -- and she is supporting them both, while working as a bar hostess. Even worse, his father (Ryotaro Mizushima) disapproved of the marriage and has "banished" him from the family -- to the dismay of his mother (Ayako Katsuragi), younger sister (Mieko Takamine) and uncle (Takeshi Sakamoto). Will the rest of the family manage to bring father -- or son -- around? The son is offered a good job -- if her gives the girl up. the uncle presses her to give Sano up -- for his own good. As a respite from the familial strife, Sano, Takasugi and Takamine go to the movies -- to see Riefenstahl's Olympia.

Once again, we find a Shimazu film that seems to be a model for post-war Ozu (in this case -- we a foreshadowing of Equinox Flower). A brief film (just around an hour long)-- and not "momentous" in any way -- but enjoyable.

Simón del desierto / Simon of the Desert (Luis Buñuel, 1965)

Claudio Brook plays Simon, a 5th century ascetic monk who lived for years standing a top a pillar in the Syrian desert. He is so austere, he refuses to embrace his own mother. While on pillar duty, he is visited by local folk, church dignitaries and a lovely devil (Silvia Pinal). Pinal makes three visits -- first as a (naughty) school girl, second as Jesus impersonator and third as a lovely woman (who travels via a slithering casket). With an epilogue in a big city night club (to which the devil has whisked Simon off). Yet another fascinating Bunuelian encounter with religion.

Desu nôto / Death Note (Shusuke Kaneko, 2006)

Based on a very popular manga series -- and competing with an ongoing anime series, this film tells the story of Light Yagami, a law student grown weary of the law's inefficient handling of wrongdoers (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who takes matters into his hands when he finds a notebook dropped by a god of death. As it turns out, entering people's name in the book causes them to die promptly of a heart attack (unless additional details are specified). Ironically, the police official assigned to investigate the rash of mysterious deaths of criminals (and accused criminals) is his own father. When conventional methods prove unavailing, the police seek the aid of the mysterious and eccentric L (Ken'ichi Matsuyama). After Light uses drastic measures to take a group of FBI agents off his trail, the fiancee of one of them (Asaka Seto) starts her own unorthodox investigation -- embroiling Light's idealistic and devoted girl fried (Yu Kashii). Mildly entertaining, but probably rather ephemeral -- visually not a lot of imagination -- beyond the special effects.

Kan shang qu hen mei / Little Red Flowers (ZHANG Yuan, 2006)

I had rather high expectations for this -- as the premise was interesting -- a look at a highly regimented orphanage (for Chinese 4 year olds), into which a free spirit FANG Qiang-qiang (DONG Bo-wen) is rather unwillingly thrust. While the kids are cute enough, the presentation seems rather artificial (underneath the veneer of naturalism) -- and the story goes nowhere in particular. Lots of this looks rather lovely -- but the mainland DVD I watched won't work at all on my computer (so no screen shots).

Monday, February 19, 2007

Watched February 12-18, 2007

Ani to sono imoto / Older Brother and His Younger Sister (Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Practically a template for post-war Ozu -- by Ozu's (slightly) senior colleague at Shochiku. Shimazu's millieu here (reasonably well off middle class) and domestic dilemmas presented are closer to late Ozu than pre-war Ozu is. Shin Saburi is a salaryman married to Kuniko Miyake (an Ozu mainstay from the 40s through the 60s), with a younger sister (Michiko Kuwano). Saburi has job problems -- and has to worry about marriage prospects of his sister (who is a westernized office girl). Whenever the family runs into problems, they turn to family friend Chishu Ryu (playing a part very like that he plays in Ozu's Early Spring). The solution to the family's woes, however, betrays its era -- a move to Japanese-occupied Manchuria as colonists.

While I could follow this in general terms, I would appreciate seeing a subbed version of this -- something I doubt will happen any time soon.

La voie lactée / The Milky Way (Luis Bunuel, 1969)

An utter delight. Perhaps this poker-faced traversal of Christian orthodoxy and heresy would be mystifying to someone without a grounding in Christian theology and history -- but I found it marvelous. Apparently so did Monty Python -- and it is clear that some of the Python's best work is modeled on this film. This follows two vagabonds making their way to Santiago, to visit the shrine of St. James, but much of the pleasure here lies in the side-trips. One of my favorite moments -- a chorus of little school girls do a recitation of a 6th century string of anathemas.

More pictures:

Sailor-fuku to kikanju / Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (Shinji Somai, 1981)
Tantei monogatari / Detective Story (Kichitaro Negishi, 1983)
W no higeki / Tragedy of W (Shinichiro Sawai, 1984)

A mini-festival of early films by (then) young star Hiroko Yakushimaru (seen more recently as the head lady of waiting in Princess Raccoon). HY has been a popular (and award-winning) actress for more than 25 years -- yet remains virtually known outside Asia.

Ironically, the film I was most eager to see -- Somai's Sailor suit and Machine Gun was least satisfying. While there were more than a few enjoyable sequences, this was sometimes sloppy narratively and visually. (Only hints of the complete mastery Somai would show in his later Ohikkoshi). Still, an interesting cultural artifact of its time, well worth seeing.

More screen captures:

Detective Story was the most entertaining narratively -- with Yusaku Matsuda (the tutor from Morita's Family Game) as a detective hired to watch over HY (by her absent father) as she prepares to join him in America (leaving all her college pals behind). Due to the involvement of Matsuda's ex-wife with the murder of a gang boss's son, HY winds up aiding (and protecting) Matsuda and his ex-wife -- over the protests of her housekeeper (Kyoko Kishida). HY is a charmer here -- and the story (while improbable) is mostly lots of fun.

Tragedy of W had an extemely old-fashioned plot -- one could easily imagine this as a 30s vehicle for Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. HY is a an acting apprentice who loses out in getting a part she desperately wanted (to a friend) -- but winds up getting the part underhandedly, by helping the troupe's leading lady cover up a sordid secret. Meanwhile, she has met an engaging young man, who has given up on acting for real estate agenting -- but nonetheless has been smitten by her. This film was clearly HY's declaration of cinematic adulthood -- and so loses her (cinematic) virginity here -- which is a bit disconcerting as she was an extremely young-seeming 20 year old (and could still easily pass for a high school student for at least another 5 years). HY oscillates here between an engagingly natural manner and "over-acting" (though -- given the nature of the part and the story -- I suspect any over-acting was quite intentional). In any event, this is was a very good-looking film:

Kai xin gui zhuang gui / Happy Ghost 3 (Johnnie To, 1986)

A very entertaining, and very silly film about ghosts and re-incarnation, starring a very young-looking Maggie Cheung as a soul awaiting re-incarnation, whose re-birth keeps getting mucked up by a hapless high school teacher. As a result, she vows to get revenge, while waiting on her next chance at rebirth. The teacher, on the advice of a friendly ghost, takes steps to avert her wrath, which results in her posthumous success as a singer (she had committed suicide because her career as a singer had met with failure). By this point, the poor teacher is already embroiled in all sorts of problems (including problems with his girl friend, his principal and a mob boss running a bordello which employs school girls).

Mei wan mei liao / Sorry Baby (Feng Xiaogang, 1999)

GE You is a van driver who works for FU Biao (the hero's sidekick in ZHANG Yimou's Happy Times), a travel bureau operator who likes to pinch pennies by stiffing his employees. To put pressure on his boss, Ge "abducts" Fu's girl friend (Jacqueline Wu) from the hospital where she is being treated for a case of pneumonia. Wu turns the tables on Ge, deciding that this offers her the chance to see whether Fu values his cash or her more. Meanwhile, she discovers just why our hero is so desperate to get the money he is owed. An immensely enjoyable (and likable) work by mainland China's best director of "popular" films.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Watched February 5-11, 2007

Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke / Okoto and Sasuke (Yasujiro Shimazu. 1935)

First adaptation of Tanizaki's story about a blind musician and her exceedingly devoted male attendant (released when the book was still hot off the press). Kinuyo Tanaka is marvelous as the strong-willed yet sometimes childish youngest daughter of a merchant family, who has been trained as a musician from childhood, due to her blindness.
Kôkichi Takada (as her guide and watchdog, more or less) is likewise very fine. Her life is complicated by an insistent (and fairly villainous) wealthy "suitor" (played by Ozu regular Tatsuo Saito). When she scars his face while resisting an attempted rape, he arranges for tit-for-tat revenge. After her face is disfigured, Okoto hides from everyone, which her aide finds unendurable -- and he takes drastic action to allow him to once again rejoin her company. Interestingly, Kitano's Dolls (his own meditation on "mad love") uses an updated variant of this story as one of its subplots.

Some additional pictures:

El Gran Calavera / The Great Madcap (Luis Bunuel, 1949)

Entertaining film -- with Fernando Soler (a film writer and director in his own right) as paterfamilas of a somewhat dysfunctional wealthy family. Quite conventional for the most part -- but with a church wedding scene that foreshadows later Mexican works.

Out 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971), parts 6, 7 and 8

All 14 hours finally seen. Great fun in terms of visuals and performances. Don't have much of a clue what was going on -- and don't much care (as this seemed not worth worrying about).

L'hypothèse du tableau volé / The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raoul Ruiz, 1979)

Only an hour long -- but very dry. It put my wife and I both to sleep. Perhaps, if it wehad not tried to watch this at the end of a long day, we would have ad more stamina. Even so, I suspect this will not count as one of my favorite Ruiz films.

Qing cheng zhi lian / Love in a Fallen City (Ann Hui, 1984)

Superb film set in Shanghai -- and then in Hong Kong, as the Japanese attack and invade. Cora Miao and CHOW Yun-fat are excellent here as a divorced young widow, whose relation with her siblings is deteriorating and a wealthy businessman/playboy who might offer her a chance at a re-start in life. Available on subbed VCD. Some pictures:

Shi wan huo ji / Lifeline (Johnnie To, 1997)

A Hong Kong fire company with a reputation as "jinxes" gets a new rather imperious boss (Alex Fong). Second in command (the always wonderful LAU Ching-wan) tries to keep the troops in line despite their unhappiness. They initially face a number of minor challenges -- and then spend the last half of the film at a gigantic factory fire. Lots of tension, great visuals. Not sure I entirely believed the conclusion, but not a major problem.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Watched January 29 - February 4, 2007

Watashi no nisan / My Older Brother (Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934) (not yet in IMDB -- which lists only 35 of Shimazu's 160 films)

An early Japanese sound film starring Kazuo Hasegawa (heart throb of historical films -- in his first "modern" role, still working under the name of Chojiro Hayashi) and a young Kinuyo Tanaka. A romantic comedy, with elements of suspense and sentimental melodrama, all crammed into 70 minutes or so. Hasegawa is a prodigal son, who has just been returned to his brother (Reikichi Kawamura), who owns a limousine service. To show his gratitude for his kind reception, Hasegawa volunteers to chauffeur a couple of rather shady individuals who arrive just at closing time. It turns out they are on an errand to return a young runaway heiress to her home (whether she wants to go or not). Hasegawa, seeing a maiden in distress, rescues Tanaka.

The film mostly chronicles the pair's adventures -- as Tanaka meets new experiences,
such as less than sanitary roadside restaurant and the ramshackle apartment of one of Hasegawa's buddies. Tanaka is a hoot here, getting a rare chance to handle a purely comic role -- and engaging in such risque behavior as trying to change clothes in the back of a moving limousine (causing poor Hasegawa acute embarrassment).

More screen shots:

Kagemusha / Shadow Warrior (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)
Alexander Nevsky
(Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)

The first portion of this film about a double hired to impersonate warlord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai in both roles) is quite engaging. Midway through, however, the focus shifts to battle scenes that I found mostly pretty uninteresting. (As it turns out, this film is not historical, but purely a bit of "alternate history" -- albeit using real historical personages). By the end, Kurosawa has slid pretty close to the style he would use in "Ran" (cold and empty but with lots of spectacle and action). I was so aggravated by the battle scenes in "Kagemusha", I decided I needed a restorative -- and so watched Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky", which left me in a decidedly better mood.

Chik geuk siu ji / Bare Foot Kid (Johnnie To, 1993)

A superb film about a young rural martial arts expert (Aaron Kwok) who comes to town to look for an old colleague of his father (TI Lung). As it turns out Ti works for a fabric dying business run by Maggie Cheung, who hires Kwok (after he chases away thugs trying to convince her to sell her business. Along the way, Kwok runs across Jacqueline Wu, a young teacher at a school run by her father. Wu is initially mean to Kwok when he comes to learn to read and write, but then regrets her action. Meanwhile the town's new magistrate is biding his time, waiting to put the local crime boss (who also owns a dying company) out of commission. Kwok gets over-enthusiastic in protecting Cheung's interests, causing events to start spiraling out of control.

The story is interesting, the actors are excellent -- and the action scenes are quite awesome. The new Hong Kong DVD of this (Shaw Brothers) film is gorgeous.

More screen shots:

Still Life / Sanxia Haoren (JIA Zhangke, 2006)

Jia's new film depicts the ancient Sichuan city of Fengjie, as it is progressively demolished, while the water levels rise due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. It focuses on two visitors from the northern city of Shanxi who come to Fengjie looking for missing family members. The first searcher is a miner (HAN Sanming) looking for the wife who left him to return to her hometown (taking their young daughter) 16
years previously. the second is a woman (ZHAO Tao) looking for her husband, who came south to work a couple of years before, but who has become progressively undiligent about keeping in touch.

Since pictures can speak louder than words, here are screen shots from the quite good mainland DVD: