Monday, April 30, 2007

Watched April 23-29, 2007

Tsuchi / Earth (Tomu Uchida, 1939)

Famed "realist" film about country life, made by Uchida without studio approval or cash. Shot with donated reel ends (and a bit of funds) on weekends and vacation days. A widower with two children lives with his his father-in-law. The family grows rice on rented land, and it is hard to make ends meet, especially when weather is uncooperative. The relationship between the man and his father-in-law is strained -- and grows worse when the old man accidentally allows the family's house to burn down. This film was believed to be lost, but in the 60s an incomplete copy -- sub-titled in German and missing first and last reels -- was found in a German archive. Recently, a somewhat longer (but still incomplete) version was discovered in a Russian film archive. The version I saw was the one found in Germany.

More pictures:

Koibumi / Love Letter (Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953)

Tanaka's first film as a director. The good -- exceptionally fine cinematography by long-time Naruse collaborator Hiroshi Suzuki and a fine cast (including Masayuki Mori, Yoshiko Kuga, Kyoko Kagawa et al.). The bad -- a rather poor script by Kinoshita, based on a book by the same author responsible for Naruse's least interesting film. Tanaka, while not helped by the script, does not show an especially good sense of cinematic timing here. Her casting choices are also a bit weird -- with Kuga and Mori (who is 20 years older than Kuga) playing people who were supposedly grade school (and high school) classmates -- and who went their separate ways after they left school.

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Nigorie / Muddy Water
(Tadashi Imai, 1953)

A three part-film based on short stories about the difficult lot of women in the early Meiji era. This is the film that swept almost all the Japanese awards for the year of Tokyo Story and Ugetsu (among others great films) -- and lost to the fairly inconsequential Gate of Hell at the Cannes Festival. Imai and Kinoshita (and not Ozu, Naruse or Mizoguchi) were the most popular (and critically acclaimed) directors of the Japanese Golden Age of the 50s. While I find the contemporaneous adulation for Kinoshita beyond my understanding, I have found the few Imai films I've seen fairly impressive. And this is no exception.

This film has an interesting structure. Part 1 lasts around 20 minutes, part 2 around 40, and part 3 around 60. And part 1 is the most muted and slow moving -- while part 3 is the most noisy and (literally) in your face.

Part 1 tells of a young woman returning home for the first time after her arranged marriage. Parental pleasure at seeing her vanishes when it turns out she hates the marriage and wants to come home -- for good. Her mother responds with weepy lamentations and the father with sarcastic hostility. She decides to leave again -- and a rickshaw is called. As she rides (and then walks) with the rickshaw man, the two talk -- presumably exchanging the stories of their lives. They arrive at her destination -- and part. Unfortunately, this is unsubtitled -- and it will be a good while (if ever) before I figure out the details of the long concluding conversation.

Part 2 is a bit reminiscent of Cinderella (up to a point). Yoshiko Kuga is a servant in the house of a rich merchant family, consisting of an imperious mother, a mostly absent father, two very pretty (and even more spoiled) daughters, and a rather irresponsible (but handsome) college-going son. Not only is Kuga over-worked and poorly paid, but her employer is quite stingy -- with her. As it turns out, Kuga is supporting her own family with her meager earnings (her father can no longer work, due to grave illness). When her family's situation worsens, Kuga steals some money to give to her mother. I shan't say what happens next -- but will provide some screen shots:

Part 3 is centered around a Yoshiwara prostitute played by Chikage Awashima. She has a patron she is in love with (So Yamamura), but is also a big favorite with local gangsters. In addition, she has a creepy, stalker-ish ex-client -- now married and living in poverty with Haruko Sugimura and a young son. While the cinematography (by Shunichiro Nakao, Imai's regular cameraman -- who also shot Naruse's wonderful "Spring Awakens) is uniformly fine throughout this film -- it is most impressive in this last section.


Not quite as perfect as Tokyo Story, perhaps -- but a more impressive film overall than Ugetsu (and at least as good as Mizoguchi's best 1953 film Gion Festival Music / A Geisha).

Don Kikhot (Grigori Kozintsev, 1957)

Probably the best adaptation ever of Cervantes' classic tale. Nikolai Cherkasov and Yuri Tolubeyev are visually perfect for their roles as the Knight of the Rueful Countenance and Conqueror or Lions and his trusty companion Sancho Panza. The new Ruscico release has somewhat restored (but still quite faded) color -- and (at long) last proper Sovscope (2.35:1) formatting. Not quite the equal of his last two films, "Hamlet" and "King Lear", but very fine.

Additional screenshots:

About Love: Shanghai (ZHANG Yibai, 2005)

Re-watched this section of the three-part omnibus film (About Love). I think ZHANG Yibai is definitely a director to keep an eye on. Despite his start in commercials and music videos, he displays a truly cinematic sense of vision -- and time. A Japanese college student comes to Japan to do some immersion studying of Chinese. While there he rents a room above a store run by a woman and her high school daughter. A film in Chinese, Japanese, English -- and two words of Spanish.

My initial comments on the film --
Watched March 26 - April 1, 2007

A few more pictures:

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Watched April 16-22, 2007

Urashima Taro no koei / The Descendant of Taro Urashima (1946)

Taro Urashima is a folk tale character rather similar to Rip van Winkle. Here our hero, also named Urashima (Susumu Fujita), is a veteran returned long military service, who is confused and perplexed by the greatly changed Japan he has returned to. A shaggy , bearded fellow, he gains a bit of notoriety for a primal howl he has begun making in public places. He catches the attention of a young newspaper reporter (Hideko Takamine), who encourages him to make a more dramatic protest -- scaling the tower on top of the parliament building and bellowing his call to all Tokyo. The image of the shaggy prophet on top of his parapet anticipates Bunuel's "Simon of the Desert" to a remarkable degree. Urashima holds onto his position until he collapses from fatigue. His increased notoriety brings him to the attention of a group of opportunistic politicians, who seek to exploit his popularity for their "Japanese Happiness Party". In his naivete, Urashima is increasing co-opted by the politicians (and the opportunistic daughter of their leader -- played by Hisako Yamane).

Interesting supporting performances by Haruko Sugimura (as Takamine's editor) and Nobuo Nakamura (one of the perennial crew of cronies in late Ozu -- utterly unrecognizable here as grizzled elderly friend of Urashima). This is visually the most "Soviet" looking film I've ever seen from Naruse. Large sections have a documentary-esque look -- depicting disaffected ordinary folks in street and workplace settings. Surprisingly, Naruse even sneaks in a few shots depicting clear-cut war damage (something US military censorship did not allow). The political message here is somewhat mystifying -- not nearly so clearly supportive of Occupation-imposed values as the contemporary works of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. While most parts of this are quite interesting, there are a few duller spots. Not a major work of Naruse film art, but an intriguing sidelight, both as to Naruse's career and as to Japan in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Tsuma no kokoro / A Wife's Heart
(Mikio Naruse, 1956)

Hideko Takamine and Keiju Kobayashi are as happily married as a childless couple in 1950s Japan can be -- except for the fact that Kobayashi must run the family store under the always watchful eyes of his rather intimidating mother (Eiko Miyoshi -- the scary neighbor granny in Ozu's "Good Morning"). Takamine has been saving up her money so that she can open her own cafe -- and has taken a job to learn the business -- in a diner run by Sadako Sawamura and Daisuke Kato. Unfortunately, the matriarch has other plans for all family cash -- funding the marriage of her daughter. Thwarted, Takamine seeks a loan from the banker brother (Toshiro Mifune) of her best friend (Yoko Sugi). Although Takamine gets her loan, it turns out her husband's elder brother (Chiaki Minoru) is a having business problems -- and again the matriarch applies pressure to get all available cash out of the pockets of our hero and heroine. As Kobayashi begins to lose it (fleeing to a geisha house to escape the pressure at home), Takanine grows increasingly attracted to Mifune.

A visually lovely film -- especially in a sequence involving a stroll in a mountainside park by Mifune and Takanine -- and another in which they waiting out a sudden rainstorm in a cafe. Wonderful performances (by the whole large cast). While much of the story IS communicated visually -- the story line is sufficiently complex that (full) understanding of the dialog is close to imperative. I will need to watch again -- and try to decipher more. This seems to have been well-received when shown in the recent retrospective (alas, this is a film I didn't get to see screened then -- with subtitles).

More screenshots:

Kuroi junin no onna / Ten Dark Women (Kon Ichikawa, 1961)

A philandering producer has pushed ten of his woman (including his wife) too far, and the women decide to do something about it. All ten conspire to knock the producer off -- meanwhile. each schemes individually to rescue him, so long as she can come up with a way to keep him all to herself.

The Japanese DVD looks pretty good -but it has no subtitles. Though visually interesting, this film also is dependent on its dialog. Criterion (or Masters of Cinema) really needs to get moving on releasing this impressive, ferociously dark comedy in the West.

More screen shots:

Onna no rekishi / A Woman's Story (Mikio Naruse, 1963)

Yet another Naruse family drama starring Hideko Takamine. Here Takamine is a war widow, living with her grown son (Tsutomo Yamikazi) and mother-in-law (Natsulo Kahara) -- and supporting the family by running a beauty parlor. Hardworking Takamine is reasonably content -- until her son announces he wants to marry a dancing girl from a cabaret (Yuriko Hoshi) -- at which point, familial strife ensues. Along the way, the film dips into the past, as Takamine recalls her courtship, early days of marriage, the war years (etc.). By and large a very interesting, black and white Tohoscope format film. Other than being a bit more diffuse than the average Naruse film, the only real flaw is a score that occasionally includes cheesy synthesized-sounding music.

More pictures:

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Watched April 9-15, 2007

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Edward F. Cline, 1941)

One of the most remarkable of Fields' works -- and sadly his last. (He would appear in a few more films -- but the rejection of his script by "Director" Franklin Pangborn in this film proved prophetic). Lots of "meta-cinema" here -- with Fields trying to peddle his script to Pangborn. As the proferred script is enacted before us (as Pangborn reads it) -- our rejection of it as preposterous is undermined by the (preposterous) Pangborn's rejection. Gloria Jean -- as Fields' niece -- has a remarkable singing voice for her age -- and a spunkiness that made her a suitable Fieldsian protege. Wonderful character actors scattered throughout in supporting roles.

Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki / When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)

This simply gets better and better with each re-visitation. Not only is Takamine (in the central role of bar hostess "Mama") perfect -- so is the entire (large) supporting cast. Black and white wide-screen cinematography doesn't get any better than what we see here (courtesy of long-time Naruse collaborator Masao TAMAI). And I love the score (one of Toshiro Mayuzumi's best).

Criterion's presentation is generally good -- though I found the subtitles often did not fully capture the nuances of what was actually being said. I liked the little interview with Nakadai, but haven't listened to the commentary (not really certain that a film so crystal clear as this NEEDS a commentary).

Comédie de l'innocence / Comedy of Innocence (Raoul Ruiz, 2000)

More in the lighter vein of "That Day" than of the more abstruse Ruiz films -- which is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. Out of the blue, right after his birthday, a young boy named Camille (Nils Hugon) informs his mother (Isabelle Huppert) that he wants to visit his _real_ mother -- who lives on the other side of Paris. When she takes the boy to visit, he seems surprisingly familiar with a part of Paris he has never been to. The "alternate mother" turns out to be Jeanne Balibar, a woman whose own son Paul (the same age as Camille) had drowned two years previously. Camille is a complex child -- he seems to have imaginary plymates -- and is an aspiring film maker (with his own video camera). Other complications -- a rather sinister uncle (Charles Berling) and a somewhat mysterious babysitter. Very enjoyable.

Nihon chinbotsu / Japan Sinks (Shinji Higuchi, 2006)

Higuchi was an assistant director for the very good mid-1990s neo Gamera trilogy and director of the recent WW2 (slightly) alternative history (fantasy) film, "Lorelei". Here, he tackles Japan's slide into the sea -- due to geological causes that are explained carefully (but to which I didn't pay sufficient attention, I'm sure). The main focus,as disaster unfolds (and much of the world is wary of coping with the vast tide of potential refugees), is a handful of individuals (including, but not limited) -- a leading (but often unpolitic) geologist (Etsushi Toyokawa), his politician ex-wife (Mao Daichi), a couple of mini-submarine piloting assistants (including pop star-actor Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), a young girl he rescues (Mayuko Fukuda), a rescue squad member who rescues both of these two in the prologue (singer-actress Kou Shibasaki), various relatives and neighers of Shibasaki and a geologist in charge of watching over Mt. Fuji (Aklira Emoto -- otherwise known as Imamura's "Dr. Liver"). The special effects are (not surprisingly) quite well done -- more importantly, the various human dramas are generally well-handled (albeit with a few too many coincidences). all in all, considerably better than I expected. A good representative of Japanese popular ("non-art") cinema.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Watched April 2-8, 2007

Biruma no tategoto / The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa, 1956)

I've seen a number of Kon Ichikawa films to date, and liked all but one -- but I like this best of all. A young Japanese soldier, injured when attempting to convince a group of fellow soldiers to surrender (the war having ended), is nursed back to health by a Burmese Buddhist monk. Initially determined to re-join his own regiment, he feels the call to minister to the unburied Japanese war dead. Visually beautiful, wonderful music, good performances and a moving message. It made a perfect Good Friday film (especially as it actually used a Passion week hymn "O Sacred Head Surrounded" in its soundtrack). Highly recommended. More screen shots:

The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Not sure what to make of this. Some of the (found) images are lovely -- and the score was quite nice. The "story line" (about alien settlers) was simply bizarre. I'll re-assess the experience after listening to the commentary (which I hope will be more enjoyable than the films itself).

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Watched March 26 - April 1, 2007

Man on the Flying Trapeze (Clyde Bruckman, 1935)

One of Fields' very greatest films. The high point here is probably the opening segment -- involving (among other things) kegs of bootleg applejack, singing burglars (and police), a hectoring spouse, a very unmotivated Fields, in-laws from hell. A must-see.

Gakko III / The New Voyage (Yoji Yamada, 1998)

Earnest, didactic, sentimental. In some cases, these might be viewed as negatives -- but this is the kind of film that Yamada puts his heart into. A woman with an autistic son is laid off from her job as an in-house accountant. Initially at a loss, she learns she can enter a free training program for office building maintenance workers (covering everything from heating system maintenance to fluorescent bulb changing). Her classmates cover a wide range of backgrounds -- but she is most drawn to a down-sized corporate executive (but only after he finally sheds his illusions that his connections will bring him a new corporate job). Melodramatic -- of course, but I liked it.

About Love: Tokyo (Ten Shimoyama, 2005)

About Love: Taipei (YEE Chin-yen, 2005)

About Love: Shanghai (ZHANG Yibai, 2005)

he first and second segments of this omnibus film were, respectively, cute and entertaining (Tokyo) and mostly rather strange (Taipei). All three involve connections between a pairing of a Chinese and a Japanese (of opposite sex). The first involved a male Chinese animator-in-training and a female Japanese painter -- who keep almost meeting. The second involved a Japanese man and a Taiwanese woman (pop star Mavis Fan), neither of whom show much sign of either gainful employment or financial constraints.

he third segment, "Shanghai", outshines its predecessors by far. Takashi Tsukamoto has come to Shanghai to learn Chinese by interacting in a real setting (working as a waiter for a Japanese-speaking cafe owner and taking a room over a corner store). LI Xiaolu (previously in "Xiu Xiu, the Sent Down Girl") is the high school-aged daughter of TT's landlady. The girl is fascinated by her guest and falls in love -- while TT is oblivious (having just received a "Dear John" postcard from his Japanese girlfriend, who has flown off to Barcelona -- on her own quest). It is beautifully shot and acted -- with a gently bittersweet tang reminiscent of the work of Takahata's films. Only 34 minutes or so -- but absolutely wonderful.

i ma de hou xian dai sheng huo / The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (Ann Hui, 2006)

Another fine film by Ann Hui. SIQIN Gaowa fled her run-down home (and family) in Manchuria years before -- lured by the freedom and chance of success offered by Shanghai. She is visited by a young nephew (on crutches, with one leg in a cast), who proves a bit of a problem to handle -- e
specially once he makes the acqauntance of Fei Fei (a street-wise girl just a bit older than he is). After her nephew is finally shipped home, she crosses paths with a suave and dapper gentleman (CHOW Yun Fat) -- who would appear to be more debonair than worthy of trust. When she injures herself in a fall, she is forced to call on the aid of the family she abandoned long ago -- and her now grown-up daughter (Vicki ZHAO Wei) is (not surprisingly) not exactly bursting with daughterly devotion -- when she and her rather dismal boyfriend come to Shanghai.

As is often the case, Hui's work calls to mind the work of Ozu and Naruse -- and like a number of Ozu films, the tone of this film shifts slowly but inexorably over its course -- starting in comedy territory and winding up .... somewhere else. Perhaps not as perfect as "July Rhapsody", but very very good overall.

Aju teukbyeolhan sonnim / Ad Lib Night
(LEE Yoon-ki, 2006)

Lee's first film "This Charming Girl"was a low-key triumph, his second "Love Talk" was (mostly) a noble failure (trying to deal with the travails of Korean expatriates working in the United States). Third time seems to be a charm here -- as this is even better than Lee's first. Young (late teen-ish) HAN Hyo-ju is loitering around a Seoul street corner, waiting for a "date" to arrive -- when she is accosted by a group of young provincial men. It turns out that they are neighbors of a man who is dying, who wishes to reconcile with his run-away daughter before he dies. They have not seen the daughter for several years, but are convinced that "The Girl" must be the missing daughter. When she (more or less) convinces them that they are mistaken, one of the searchers decides to offer her a job pretending to be the daughter, arguing the dying man, who is being fed a heavy dose of morphine for his pain, will never notice that she isn't the real daughter. Initially, she turns the offer down, but impulsively re-considers.

On arrival at the town of the dying man, neighbors and relatives are a bit non-plussed (and one elderly female relative refuses to believe that she is NOT the long lost runaway). While the rural village is not idyllic, neighbors and relatives bicker as the man lies dying (near comatose) in the next room, the Girl seems touched by the depth of the interconnections between the people (something which the runaway daughter apparently found unendurable -- according to her childhood boyfriend). Having played her role more than satisfactorily, the missing daughter's friend drives her back to Seoul -- and the Girl is able to share some of her own troubles). One does learn the young woman's identity at the end -- which is very sad but maybe a bit hopeful. Score another triumph for the cinematic heirs of the spirit of Ozu and Naruse. One of the best films of 2006.