Monday, December 24, 2007

Watched November 26 -- December 2, 2007: Barnet, Somai, Jeong, Bong

U samogo sinyego morya / By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936)

Barnet's film takes place in the Caspian Sea -- and an on an island in that sea. But he starts the film with water and waves and two shipwrecked sailors -- and the marine cinematography by Mikhail Kirillov is absolutely stunning. The sailors Alyosha (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and Yussuf (Lev Sverdlin) are rescued by members of a fishing commune on an island in the Southern Caspian. Soon after their arrival, both are smitten by Misha, a pretty commune supervisor (Yelena Kuzmina, star of Kozintsev and Trauberg's New Babylon and Alone). They both go to work for the commune, and compete for the attention of Misha, using means both fair and foul, which puts a considerable strain on their comradeship. As it turns out, she is already engaged to a sailor serving in the Soviet Union's Pacific fleet, so the two set off together (friends again), back across the Caspian to their own hometown.

An utterly delightful (and beautiful) film -- it has helped solidify Barnet's spot as one of my favorite Soviet directors. One can't help wondering why Barnet's lovely film is so comparatively ignored today. Perhaps the fact that it is totally uncategorizable hurts it -- part low comedy, past romance, part socialist propaganda, part musical. Moreover, this is part silent (with intertitles and a synchronized musical score) and part talkie. As beautifully crafted as the film is, it feels unsophisticated, too much aimed at common audiences. At the moment, the only subbed DVD release (from Bach Films), is subbed only in French. It does not appear that much restoration was done for this release, but for the most part this looks lovely, despite the damaged condition of the underlying source print.

Lots more pictures:

Novgorodtsy / Men of Novgord / A Good Lad (Boris Barnet, 1943)

This war film by Boris Barnet is almost as heterogeneous as By the Bluest of Seas. This film involves a group of partisans who rescue a downed French airman (Viktor Dobrovolsky) in Nazi-occupied Western Russia. Despite the lack of any mutually intelligible language at first, our hero finds romance and aid in trying to restore a downed German airplane to working order. As it turns out, the partisans have found the location of a secret enemy airbase (with the aid of a heroic refugee opera singer), and our pilot needs to get back to his base to lead an air raid to destroy it. Despite its length (just over an hour), the film involves plenty of comedy and music (both folk style and classical) in addition to drama, suspense and romance.

Visually, this isn't quite as splendid as By the Bluest of Seas. And the cast isn't quite as skilled. But the film is still worth seeing (if one gets a chance). Curiously, while this film was shown extensively to Soviet troops in the field (and was quite popular with them), it was banned from exhibition in Russia's towns and cities. One wonders what led to the simultaneous promotion and suppression of a film that certainly seemed patriotic enough for domestic consumption.

More screen shots:

Ohikkoshi /Moving (Shinji Sômai, 1993)

Of all the wonderful foreign "family films" that have never been distributed in the West, Ohikkoshi is the film whose neglect is most mystifying to me. It is almost certainly the best film ever made (to date) on the impact of divorce on a child. It manages to be both honest and yet still (ultimately) hopeful It is beautifully filmed -- and its star, twelve year-old Tomoko Tabata, gives one of the best performances by a child ever captured on film. In addition, it may be the only live-action film that seems to have both been inspired by the work of Ghibli Studios (particularly Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday) and provided a source of inspiration in return (to Miyazaki's Spirited Away).

Renko's parents both seem to be decent enough people and both love her well enough -- but they just can't stand living together any longer. At first, Renko seems (relatively) unflustered by her father's move to an apartment in another part of town. But she begins getting into trouble at school, and also starts dreaming up schemes to reunite her parents. The culmination of her efforts is a visit to Lake Biwa for a fire festival, an event she attended when she was younger (before her family life became troubled by parental discord). Initially a bit amused by her daughter's somewhat underhanded shenanigans, Renko's mother (former pop music star Junko Sakurada) gets extremely upset when she discovers her daughter has invited her father (Kiichi Nakai) as well. After being reassured by her father that he still loves her, she sets off for a solo odyssey. Along the way, she is temporarily "adopted" by an elderly couple she meets by chance. After a frantic search, her mother catches sight of her at nightfall -- only to be told "I'll see you tomorow morning" as Renko slips away again (after promising her protectors that she'd see them again next year). She spends the night at the fire festival, in a bamboo forest on a hill overlooking the festival site (where she prays to the moon), and then on the shore of Lake Biwa -- where she falls asleep and dreams. In the morning, as Renko warms herself over a little fire she made, she is greeted by her mother. Having finally confronted the reality of her situation, Renko is ready to return to school -- where she must make a speech about her family (which she had previously dreaded) and get ready for the passing from elementary school to middle school.

"Ohikkoshi" as used in the film's title literally means "moving" as in "moving from one place to another". Metaphorically, it stands for the heroine's from one situation (and state of mind) to another. As noted above. As with Miyazaki in Spirited Away (another film that centers around "moving"), the young heroine's process of growth and transformation is totally entwined with Shinto motifs and concepts. If this film were ever to appear on DVD in the West, a comprehensive primer on Shintoism and Shinto rites would probably enrich viewers' experience considerably.

Alas, at present, the film is only available as a barebones, unsubbed Japanese DVD of decent (but not superlative) quality. To complicate matters more, the film makes considerable use of Kansai dialects, so even students of Japanese might find some of the dialog rough going. On the other hand, most of the last 45 minutes of the film (which covers Renko's solo quest) are virtually wordless. I recently showed the film to a friend who doesn't understand Japanese, and he was nonetheless left in awe by it. Unfortunately, its creator Shinji Sômai died in 2001 at much too young an age (early 50s), so the film must depend on well-wishers to promote it (and Sômai's other important, but now-neglected films -- such as Typhoon Club). Surely, someday, some enterprising Western DVD company will belatedly discover this remarkable (and indispensable) film and make it available.

Girl's Night Out (JEONG Jae-eun, 1999)

Prior to making her first full length film, Take Care of My Cat, Jeong made three short films. Two of these are available as supplements to the Korean DVD release of TCoMC. This little film about two high school girls who are friends is, in some ways, like a preliminary sketch for TCoMC. One girl is obsessed with photography, but can't afford a real camera. The other girl is obsessed by a hunky older cousin (who takes advantage of her). Both have family problems that complicate their lives. The girls for a day trip to a cheesy coastal resort -- and then come back late in the evening, but still in time to watch an important soccer match on television

This naturalistic little film moves at a seemingly slow pace -- but covers a surprisingly large slice of the girls' lives. It anticipates the patient and attentive gaze on young subjects Jeong she would exhibit in TCoMC and The Aggressives. Unfortunately, the (in my opinion, quite nice) latter film garnered little in the way of critical or audience support, so Jeong's career appears (at least for now) to have shifted into slow gear.

Some more screen shots:

Flandersui gae / Barking Dogs Neve Bite (BONG Joon-ho, 2000)

Although Bong's subsequent films, Memories of Murder and The Host, were both excellent, I still like his first feature film best of all. It has an audacity and imaginativeness that is quite winning -- unless one is put off by (fictional) abuse of small dogs. The films (at least on DVD) starts off with the assurance that no dogs were harmed in the making of the film -- which is nice to know in advance. As a life-long dog lover, I found the film's robust dog humor hilarious (on the other hand, all MY dogs have been large ones).

The protagonist (LEE Sung-jae) is a would-be academic, currently unemployed for lack of a timely, well-placed bribe. Currently unemployed, and relying on the earnings of his very pregnant wife (KIM Ho-jung), he has gotten increasingly irritable. And nothing irritates him more than the yapping of small dogs in and around his apartment building (where dogs are technically forbidden). When he has a chance to grab what he thinks is the offending dog, he seizes it. Unable to throw it off the roof (as he planned), he hides it in the basement. When he discovers that he got the wrong dog, he goes to let it out -- but discovers that he building's janitor (played by the marvelous Byeon Hee-bong) has turned the poor little pooch into that night's dinner. Unchastened (or, at least, insufficiently chastened), he nabs the dog whose yips drive him nuts -- and this time does throw it off the roof. He is observed, however, by the apartment complex's bookkeeping assistant (BAE Doo-na) and her pudgy friend (GO soo-hee), who runs a nearby convenience store.

Lee's life becomes more complicated when his wife brings home a poodle -- and makes him the dog's unwilling daytime attendant. When he loses the dog through gross negligence (but not on purpose, as his wife believes), his days are devoted to dog hunting. His path crosses Bae's again when he needs to get approval for the "missing dog" posters he needs to distribute. Bae is sympathetic to his plight, as the third dog-napping "victim" in recent days. Bae is so devoted to dog hunting, she loses her job. Meanwhile, Lee is able to put together a proper bribe -- as his wife has had to quit work due to her pregnancy, and her severance pay is just enough to pay off Lee's academic superior. When is all is said and done, one wonders whther Bong has presented a Buddhist parable in the guise of an unusually good-natured black comedy.

This film is structured almost precisely like a classic screwball comedy -- with one important difference; there is not even the tiniest hint of a romantic connection between Lee and Bae. Lee is devoted, without question, to his wife (if not to her dog) and Bae's affections (non-romantic, at that) seem focused on her buddy. The couple interact together only on a common quest (and as unwitting pursuer on an unknown pursued). The film has innumerable wonderful moments, but perhaps none so wonderful as a lengthy story told by the janitor to the building manager (as they wait for the dog stew to finish cooking) -- about a phantom boiler repairman (Boiler Kim).

The cinematography by Choi Young-hwan is superb. And so are all the performer. And so is the jazzy underscore (and the punk rock song played during the closing credits). Although this is probably the kind of film W.C. Fields would surely have loved, the chance of this film being released in the United States today appear slim (to none). Luckily, the Korean and Hong Kong DVDs both have English subtitles. The Korean DVD looks fine (HK DVD unseen by me).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Watched November 19 - 25, 2007: Wu and Naruse

Shen nu / The Goddess (WU Yonggang, 1934)

This film about a Shanghai prostitute's struggle to raise her son might well be China's greatest silent film. Wu had spent a number of years working in Hollywood, and then returned to make films in China. This film was the first one he made after his return. China's first star actress, RUAN Ling yu, plays the central role here -- and easily demonstrates why she was the leading actress of China -- until her suicide at age 24, a year or so after this film was made.

The film provides no real back story. It starts with Ruan as a single mother, struggling to care for her child, and dependent on the good will of a neighbor to care for her infant after she leaves him alone at night, while she goes out to ply her trade. Her life is complicated further when she falls under the control of a gangster. When her son grows old enough to go to school, she is overjoyed to get him enrolled. Perhaps because he does well there, mothers of other children complain about the presence of a prostitute's child at the school. Although the school's principal is impressed with her determination to get her son a proper education, he is outvoted by his colleagues. He resigns in protest, and the boy is expelled. Ruan, now desperate to leave Shanghai, discovers her gangster oppressor has stolen her little cache of savings. When she goes to demand return of her money, he assaults her. Goaded beyond endurance, she attacks him, causing his death. The retired principal visits her in prison -- and tells her he has decided to adopt her son in order to ensure he gets the education he deserves. Ruan agrees, and urges him to help the boy forget her existence, feeling that his chance for happiness and success can only be lessened by memories of his past (and her sad circumstances).

Wu presents this film in a straightforward and realistic fashion. Insofar as there are melodramatic elements, these arise from the story itself. Performances are understated, rather like those in the realistic films of 1930s Japan. It does not appear that Wu was directly influenced by these other Asian films, rather he simply seems to have adapted Hollywood methods in much the same way as his Japanese contemporaries. Other Chinese films I've seen from this period do not show quite the same level of cinematic sophistication (but I've not yet seen any other films by Wu).

This film has been lovingly restored (though it still shows its age) and released as part of a set (published by the University of Hong Kong) that also includes a book about Ruan Lingyu. the set is a must have item for any fan of Classic Asian cinema -- and can be ordered from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the University of Washington Press.

More pictures:

Kimi to yuku michi / The Road I Travel with You (Mikio Naruse, 1936)

I have now seen several dozen unsubtitled Naruse films -- and have been able to follow almost all of them them reasonably well (especially when I managed to find a useful synopsis somewhere). With this film, alas, I must admit that I can't fully decipher many of the details. To be sure, I can figure out the general outline, but even with the assistance of the brief plot synopsis in Narboni's book on Naruse, much remains fairly opaque.

The problem here is that, in this film, Naruse does a lot more telling than showing. While it is not a bad-looking film by any means (other than a couple of awkward combined pans and tilts), most of the plot movement is purely dialog-based. It comes across as much more like Cukor than Naruse. It doesn't help that the film seems to have been caat with members of Toho's B Team; the only familiar face here is that of Kamatari Fujiwara. Mind you, the performances aren't bad, but neither are they particularly inspired.

In case one is curious, the plot centers on the two adult sons of a former geisha, who live with their mother in a seaside home (which had been given to her by a former patron). The elder son, who has a rather prickly relationship with his mother, is in love with the older daughter of a once well-to-do neighbor (Fujiwara). Unfortunately, financial reverses have caused Fujiwara to arrange for his daughter to make a more financially advantageous marriage. After her marriage, the new bride makes use of a classmate (an archetypal moga, i.e. "modern girl") to communicate with her true love -- and the younger brother finds this bold young lady rather interesting. Things go awry, the older brother dies in a car crash (accidental or suicide) -- and, following his funeral, his true love drowns (nothing shown, only mentioned in dialog). The parents of the dead children seem to blame the go-between, and the younger son finally gets fed up with his mother.

Mind you, there are plenty more complications in the plot -- like Fujiwara's younger daughter also being married off, and negotiations over the younger brother's "adoption" by a family without an heir to take over its family business. For a film lasting only a bit more than an hour, this has an immense amount of plot. At least provisionally, I would rate this near the bottom of the list of Naruse films I've seen (59 so far). Only the even more complicated (and less visually interesting) 1950 War of the Roses struck me as less satisfactory. All the same, until I fully decipher more of the copious dialog, I will have to leave open the possibility of at least a slight upward adjustment for this film.

Okuni to Gohei / Okuni and Gohei (Mikio Naruse, 1952)

This film was one of Naruse's rare forays into samurai film territory. Based on a neo-kabuki play written by Junichiro Tanizaki in the early 1920s, this turns out to be about as Naruse-esque as a samurai film could conceivably be. It is almost totally devoid of "action", devoted instead to exploration of the personalities of the central characters and the nature of their relationship. And, of course, the protagonists are trapped in an ultimately untenable situation.

Okuni (played by Michiyo Kogure) is the wife of a samurai, who was murdered (in an underhanded fashion) by a former suitor, Tomonojo (So Yamamura). So she and one of the retainers of her husband, Gohei (Tomoemon Otani, a famed kabuki artist, during a brief stint in the movies) go seeking the murderer, planning to seek revenge. However, the two have no real clue as to where to seek Tomonojo and their quest seems endless. After Gohei nurses Okuni through a lengthy illness, the distance between mistress and servant is erased. At this point, Okuni begins to be more and more troubled by a seemingly ever present wandering flute player -- whose music seems to have followed the pair everywhere. She fears that perhaps it could be Tomonojo is following them, trying to take them surprise -- but when finally seen, the musician appears to merely be a wandering priest. When the pair set out on the road again, they encounter the priest, who turns out to be Tomonojo in disguise after all. But rather than lying in wait to kill them, it turns out that the lovelorn ex-suitor only wanted the chance to get an occasional glance of Okuni. When Okuni and Gohei attack him, he makes only a feeble attempt at defense -- as he never had any interest in (or skill at) martial arts. Wounded, he tries to goad Gohei into killing him -- first by congratulating him on winning the favor of Okuni and then by poisoning the well of the pair's new-found love, by recounting the intimate conversations he had once shared with Okuni. Having finally finished off the unfortunate Tomonojo, Okuni and Gohei (now haunted by the deed he has done) set off to report their "success" to the clan of Okuni's dead husband.

For all its lack of action, this is a very good looking film -- shot by Kazuo Yamada at the outset of his career (he would later do a lot of work with Inagaki and Taniguchi and also shoot Samurai Rebellion for Kobayashi). Curiously, in this film Naruse returned (for the first time in many years) to the practice of dollying in and out that he had favored in his films of the mid-1930s (albeit in a less obtrusive manner than in those earlier films). Not an "essential" Naruse film, I suppose, but also not a negligible one. Like many of the other rare Naruse films dismissed in a sentence or two in Audie Bock's book on Japanese directors, this proves to be both interesting and enjoyable. Alas, I can't foresee any sort of English-subbed release of Okuni and Gohei any time soon.

A few more screen shots: