Friday, June 29, 2007

Watched (and visited) June 18 - 24, 2007: Perrault and To, Olmsted and Hopper

Le beau plaisir (Michel Brault, Bernard Gosselin & Pierre Perrault, 1968)

A little appendix to Perrault's Ile a Coudres trilogy. While the three principal films (Pour la suite du monde, Le Règne du jour and Les Voitures d'eau) were shot in black and white, there must have been a camera with color film on hand from time to time. This shows an abbreviated version of the islanders attempt to snare a beluga whale (for a New York aquarium) using traditional methods.

Ba xing bao xi / The Eighth Happiness (Johnnie To, 1988)

A bit of enjoyable (Lunar) New Year's tomfoolery -- in which CHOW Yun-fat gets to camp it up as a mincing (by design) ladykiller. Chow lives with his elder brother, a TV chef (Raymond Wong, also the film's producer) and his younger brother, a would-be comics author (Jacky Cheung). Chow has a fiancee, who is (conveniently for him) often out of town, as she is an airline stewardess (Do Do Cheng). He is currently in pursuit of a very hot department store salesgirl (Cherie Chung). Meanwhile Cheung has crossed paths with a nice young woman (Fennie Yuen) with a rather fearsome mother -- and Wong has been smitten by a divorced (or at least separated) opera singer with a young son (Bo-bo Fung).

A plot summary here would be pointless -- as would any mention that there is nothing whatsoever "real" about this film. To's visual sense is a bit more television-ish than one is used to -- given his later films. but still, this looks good and is lots of fun.

Also re-watched -- Death Note, parts 1 and 2 (due to children wanting to see this). Also the conclusion of our revisitation of Hana yori dango (Boys Over Flowers) (episodes 45-51).

Other events of note -- a twilight tour of Olmsted-designed Franklin Park (lead by a National Park Service ranger):

...and a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts' splendid new Edward Hopper exhibition:

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Watched June 11 - 17, 2007: Yamada, Hui, J-light -- and reading about Kurosawa

Harakara / The Village (Yoji Yamada, 1975)

In this early Yamada film, Chieko Baisho plays a promoter of a left wing musical theater troupe that puts on their shows in rural communities. Not having a source of government or industrial funding, she (and her colleagues) must persuade local groups to raise the money needed to bring the shows to their communities. To this end, she visits the shy and taciturn leader of the local young workers group (Akira Terao). At first the group is enthusiastic about the project, but they grow worried when they find how hard it is to sell tickets in advance. Like Naruse's Summer Clouds before and Takahata's Only Yesterday afterwards, this also deals with the difficulties young rural men and women face (and the attractiveness of the siren call of city life). Although fictional, presented almost as if it were a "direct cinema" documentary. Too "simple" for sophisticates, I suspect, but I enjoyed this quite a bit.

Haruka naru yama no yobigoe / A Distant Cry from Spring literally (I think) The Call of Far Distant Mountains (Yoji Yamada, 1980)

One of Yamada's very best films. Chieko Baisho is a widowed farm woman in Hokkaido, with a young son. During a fierce rainstorm, she lets a drifter (Ken Takakura) stay overnight in her barn. Her rather nervous generosity is re-paid when he proves adept at aiding in the delivery of a calf in the middle of the night. Takakura moves on the next day -- but returns a while later (weeks? months?), wondering if she could hire him (and is willing to work for little more than room and board). Overburdened, Baisho can't pass up the chance for almost free help in running her farm. Chieko's son is also delighted to have Takakura around (as he teaches him to ride the family's horse, among other things). As obliging as Takkura is, he is totally close-mouthed about his past (and about his reasons for working as he does). As the family becomes fonder of Takakura, he begins to relax -- to the extent of entering a horse race at the local fair. His triumph there, however, has unanticipated (and unfortunate) consequences for all (as a result of which, we finally learn his secrets).

A fine story, Beautifully shot -- with excellent performances. If only the Panorama DVD was worthy of the film. Although the box claimed this DVD is letterboxed, it turned out to be a full frame pan and scan version of a 'scope format original. Moreover, color balances are frequently mucked up. At least it has subtitles (most of the time) -- which means I shouldn't have any problems following the re-mastered (but sub-less) Japanese DVD (when I manage to buy this -- which I definitely plan to do).

Gakko II / A Class to Remember II (Yoji Yamada, 1996)

The only connection between this and Yamada's original Gakko is the actor playing the lead character (Toshiyuki Nishida). Nishida again plays a teacher -- but one bearing little resemblance to the happy-go-lucky one in the first Gakko. Here he teaches high school age students at a rural, residential special education school. The story in chief involves the search for two missing students (one who seems to fall just short of marginal functioning, the other considerably more disabled). As it turns out, the two friends have set out to attend a concert in the nearest big town (which is quite a long way distant) and to visit a former class-mate (who has managed to find a job with an understanding employer, but still is fairly lonely and sad). Nishida has problems of his own (including an unhappy high school-aged daughter -- who lives with his divorced wife), as does his companion in the search (Hidetaka Yoshioka -- who won at least one award for his supporting actor role here). Hear-breaking and heart-warming -- and thought provoking.

A Jin de gu shi / Ah Kam / The Stunt Woman (Ann Hui, 1996)

A tour de force for Michelle Yeoh -- who plays a stunt woman who gets a job with a rag-tag stunt unit (led by Sammo Hung). The first third of the film feels almost like a behind-the-cenes documentary about the inter-connection between the movie business and mobs. We then shift gears into an ill-fated romance that temporarily takes Yeoh out of the film world. Then, we shift gears again and move into darker, more melodramatic (and adventurous) territory. Story-wise, Ann Hui seems to have tried to do too many things in one film here. But Yeoh and Hung are both wonderful -- as is the cinematography:

Taiyo no uta / Midnight Sun literally Song of the Sun (Norihiro Koizumi, 2006)

A relatively unpretentious and sweet tear jerker about a 16 year old girl (played by Yui -- a young pop star who goes by one name) who is allergic to the ultraviolet rays from sunlight -- and who can only go outside when it is dark. Her parents are doting, and she has one chum (made when she was in grade school -- and could still venture out during daylight). One true love is singing and playing guitar (mostly to herself) in a deserted square in the middle of the night. The other is a boy she has never met -- but only seen (through her well-shielded window) at the bus stop across the street. His schedule is the reverse of hers, as he gets up at the crack of dawn to get in a bit of surfing before going off to school (and then dozing). One evening, however, their paths cross. You know early on how (in general) this film is going to end -- but sappy or not, I enjoyed sniffling my way through this. And Yui is a quite nice young singer (doing three songs during the course of the show).

Desu nôto: The Last Name (Shusuke Kaneko, 2006)

I enjoyed Death Note, the first half of this two part film, but was not overwhelmed by it. However, the second half turned out to be far more impressive -- doing so while eventually veering off from the course of the original manga. The premise here is that there are "death gods" and "death notes" (when a person's name is written in one of these black notebooks -- which contain full instructions for use -- that person dies). Light Yagumi (Tatsuya Fujiwara), law student and son of a local police official, had used his death note extensively in part one, knocking off criminals who have wrongly slipped from the grasp of the criminal justice system -- but now is trying to cover his tracks. The police are still trying to track the mysterious killer (known as "Kira") -- led by Light's own father (Takeshi Kaga) and the enigmatic young detctive know as "L" (Ken'ichi Matsuyama). Matters are complicated when Misa Misa (Erika Toda), a young singer and advertising model, acquires a death note and accompanying death god of her own (Lem -- voiced by Peter -- of Ran fame). As it turns out, Misa's family was murdered (by a criminal who escaped the law -- but not Kira) -- and she also wants to find (and work with) the original Kira. When Misa is apprehended, Light comes up with a plan to divert suspicion. this is NOT the sort of film that would lead one to expect a deeply moving ending -- but, unexpectedly, it has one.

Ken'ichi Matsuyama is delightfully creepy as L (and is positively Sherlock Holmes-like in his fondness for disguises and surprises). Erika Toda adds a good deal of spunk as Misa. Highly recommended pop entertainment (it is necessary to see the first part first -- but this is not really a hardship).

Reading of note:

Teruyo Nogami's Waiting on the Weather is a memoir of her years as Kurosawa's script supervisor (starting with "Rashomon") and her friendship with the Itami family (father and son directors -- Mansaku and Juzo). Really indsipensable for Kurosawa fans.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Watched June 4 - 10, 2007: Gosho, Imai, Uchida, To, Yamada, Nishitani

Ima hitotabi no / Once Again (Heinosuke Gosho, 1947)

A high-minded, romance between a young doctor and a wealthy young woman (an actress playing Ophelia when seen first), set against the backdrop of the rise of totalitarianism, the war, and the immediate aftermath of the war. The script strikes me as a bit arbitrary -- and we never quite figure out why the poor little rich girl (Mieko Takamine) falls in love with the virtuous plebeian (and a bit stolid) doctor (Ichiro Ryuzaki). Still even a subpar video transfer of this film doesn't entirely mask the fact that this is a very good-looking, well-presented film.

Himeyuri no tô / Tower of Lilies (Tadashi Imai, 1953)

The Himeyuri Gakuto (Star Lily Corps) was a group of around 200 high school girls (ranging from 15 to 19 years old) who were called into service as nurse's aides just three days before the Allies began the invasion of Okinawa (a battle which would last around three months). As the Japanese military position worsened, the hospital corps was dissolved, and the girls and their teachers were left to try to find their own way home. Only 80 or so of the girls survived, most died due to privation (it rained constantly for a month or so as they tried to cross the island on foot), Allied attacks and suicide (terrified of what would happen if they fell into the hands of the invaders).

The film, though fictionalized to some extent, seems to follow the historical facts reasonably closely (American authorities forbade filming this on Okinawa -- so this was actually shot in southern Japan). Insofar as there is a central character, it is the young student played by Kyoko Kagawa. Teachers included Susumu Fujita, Eiji Okada and Keiko Tsushima. All the huge cast of girls does well, however.

One guesses that, when the weather clears, allowing the girls a brief moment of pleasure, disaster looms -- and it does. A lot of similarities here to Ichikawa's war films -- and Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies". As usual for Imai, well-directed and expertly shot (by his regular cinematographer Shunichiro Nakao).

Kiga kaikyo / Strait of Hunger / Fugitive from the Past (Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Rentaro Mikumi stars here as Inukai, one of a trio who pulls off a robbery during the height of a deadly typhoon (a real one, that took place in 1947). As the storm subsides, he makes his getaway across the strait that separates Honshu and Hokkaido -- leaving us to wonder what happened to his accomplices. Inukai is rescued, in a manner of speaking, by Yae a good-natured, but somewhat scatty young woman (Sachiko Hidari), whose father runs a small hot springs resort. As a parting gift, Inukai leaves far too large a tip, making Yae positively worshipful. With her windfall, Yae plans to go to Tokyo to seek her fortune. As she is planning her departure, a police lieutenant (Junzaburo Ban) visits the spa, seeking Inukai -- who is apparently wanted in connection with the death of two men. Yae does move -- but finds Tokyo not so nice as she imagined, finding a job only as a waitress in a seedy restaurant in a very crime-ridden part of the city. Her luck turns when she convinces a kindly couple who runs a small brothel to hire her as an apprentice. We then skip ten years -- to find Yae relatively contented as a sort of faux geisha/prostitute. All goes well with her, until she sees a newspaper article about a local benefactor -- who she is convinced must be her beloved Inukai (although the photograph identifies him as a Mr. Tarumi) . She sets off across Tokyo for a reunion -- but Tarumi staunchly denies knowing what she is talking about.... More misfortune ultimately ensues, and a young Tokyo detective (Ken Takakura) is assigned to work on the case.

This is a three hour long movie -- yet it is rarely boring. This is due to both superb performances and absolutely stunning black and white Toeiscope cinemaphotography, deliberately given a gritty look by being shot with 16mm film, which was then blown up to 35mm for projection. No English subbed version available for home consumption, just a French-subbed version -- and the Japanese DVD I watched. Some images:

Sam sei goon /Justice, My Foot! (Johnnie To, 1992)

Stephen Chow as a slick shyster lawyer in ancient China, who always fights for whoever pays best -- which proves disastrous on the domestic level (due to a curse placed on him). His wife (the wonderful Anita Mui) insists he retire, which he does with great reluctance. After a while, Mui (now massively pregnant) gets him embroiled in rescuing a new mother in distress (wrongly accused of killing her husband -- by wicked relatives of the husband, who actually did the evil deed). Chaos ensues but (eventually) justice prevails. Part of the fun here is that Chow is a thoroughgoing wimp -- while Mui is a rather formidable fighter.

Bushi no ichibun / Love and Honor
(Yoji Yamada, 2006)

After a long career of making dramas about modern day life, Yoji Yamada first tackled his study of life at the low end of the samurai world (shortly before that world collapsed) with "Twilight Samurai" in 2002. His newest film is the third and last of this phase of Yamada's work (his next film will portray wartime Japan).

The hero here is played by Takuya Mimura (superstar member of the group "SNAP" -- and voice of Miyazaki's Howl), who portrays one of his clan lord's food tasters. He goes blind near the outset of the film, due to the unwise choice of a certain out-of-season sea delicacy by the lord's chamberlain. Ironically, he had been dreaming of quitting his post to start a small training school, a plan approved by his wife (Rei Dan), despite the impact this would have on their standard of living. A high level official, who the wife knew in her youth, suggests that he might be able to get some help for her now unemployable husband. While the wife is reluctant, her husband's relatives approve seeking help from this source -- as it means they needn't worry about supporting the couple. As the wife feared, the promised aid has a high price. and marital discord -- and a seemingly hopeless plan for revenge -- follows in the wake.

The performances here are first-rate -- and the most acclaimed of all was that of the couple's trusty old servant, played by Takashi Sasano. Rei Dan, a newcomer to cinema, also picked up numerous awards and nominations. Wonderful cinematography, a fine story, lovely music. Too bad it's not an art film....

Kencho no hoshi / Star Reformer / Star of the Prefectural Government (Hiroshi Nishitani, 2006)

From time to time, I like to check out current Japanese films that are popular at home but have essentially zero chance of Western distribution. this satire of local-level bureaucracy and business (mixed with romance) was well-reviewed -- but strikes me as no better than average "television quality" in terms of script (sloppy and improbable) and cinematography (mostly uninspired). While our earnest bureaucrat protagonist (sent to serve as apprentice in a rather dumpy super-market -- in order to tap the opinions of "common people") is played well enough by Yuji Oda, the only stand-out feature of the film for me is his mentor at the supermarket -- played by lovely Kou Shibasaki. She handles her rather undemanding role quite nicely.

(It took real work to find a few moderately interesting screen shots for this film -- as opposed to the Uchida film -- where limiting oneself to just a few shots was almost painful).

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Watched May 28 - June 3, 2007: Perrault, Jeong, Sai, Kaurismaki, Kon

Les Voitures d'eau / The River Schooners (Pierre Perrault, 1968)

The last installment of Perrault's documentary study of traditional folk life on the Ile au Coudres (an island in the St. Laurence River, north of the city of Quebec). Here he looks at the fading away of a mainstay of the island (and river) economy -- wooden schooners (in the process of being superseded by bigger craft, made of steel).

Goyangileul butaghae / Take Care of My Cat (JEONG Jae-eun, 2001)

The first Korean film I ever saw -- and still probably my favorite. BAE Doo-na heads a wonderful cast of actresses playing young women a year after their high school graduation. The cinematography here is extraordinary, not prettifying Inchon -- but making it seem remarkably real (and interesting).

Keimusho no naka / Doing Time (Yoichi Sai, 2002)

An interesting look inside a Japanese prison. The lead here (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is engaging as an old guy jailed due to loving firearms too much. While the details of daily life in the Japanese penal system may have been accurate, I (and my family) had some difficulties in finding the characters real.

Laitakaupungin valot / Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki, 2006)

One of Kaurismaki's best films -- but mysteriously ignored by critics. I think this will finally get a (probably very limited) US release later this year. My prior review (from a one-off screening at the Harvard Film Archive) still stands:

However, I have upgraded pictures, courtesy of the Finnish DVD (with English subtitles -- though only Scandinavian language menus):

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

Except for the undeniable visual flashiness Kon brings to his projects, this struck me as as unimaginative and empty. I will never understand the acclaim this guy gets for works that are far inferior to those of Abe and colleagues. Not even close to the level of accomplishment of Lain or Texhnolyze. I see very little virtue in his work beyond superficial glitter.

I went into this hoping I'd be at least as impressed with this as I was with Millennium Actress. I wasn't. Probably my last foray into Kon territory.