Thursday, August 30, 2007

Watched August 13 - 19, 2007: Shimizu, Bunuel and Lee

Jirô monogatari / Jiro's Story (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1955)

This Shimizu's film was the second (of four, so far) screen adaptation of a semi-autobiographical book (set in the 1890s) by noted educator Kojin Shimomura. It depicts the travails of Jiro (Yukihiro Ozawa, through most of the film), the youngest son of a well-to-do and eminent provincial merchant family. Due to the illness of his mother (Ranko Hanai) after he was born, he was sent to live with the family of his nurse (Yuko Mochizuki). At age seven or so, he is called home to rejoin his family (parents, siblings, grandparents), who are all virtual strangers to him. He finds it hard to adjust to his new circumstances -- and escapes to his old home. He is also finally introduced to the joys of attending school. The film traces the vicissitudes of the family -- the illness and death of the grandfather, bankruptcy of the family business, death of the mother (to whom Jiro eventually became quite attached) and the re-marriage of his father to a new wife (Michiyo Kogure).

As usual, Shimizu manages to get realistic and unaffected performances out of his child cast members. And the cinematography by longtime Naruse collaborator Hiroshi Suzuki is excellent. Like many other Shimizu films, this one deserves to be far better known.

More screen shots:

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La Voie lactée / The Milky Way (Luis Buñuel, 1969)

I first saw this film earlier this year -- and loved it then, despite the fact that the version I saw was a copy of a panned and scanned video. Seeing it again, in the form of the new Criterion DVD, I liked it even more. Needless to say, this new version represents a major improvement. I have nothing new to say about the film itself, but would like to share some screen shots from this new and improved incarnation:

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The Grace Lee Project (Grace Lee, 2005)

When Korean-American film maker Grace Lee was growing up in the middle of America, she thought she (and her name) was unique. But, on going off to college, she discovered there were lots of Grace Lees. Everyone seemed to know have someone of that name -- and most of them seemed to have been hard-working, serious-minded, piano-playing over-achievers. Consequently, Grace Lee (the director) set out on a quest to find out what "Grace Lee" was really like -- looking for as many other women of that name as she could find (in part relying on a website she set up). As it turns out, many of the Grace Lees she found were not entirely unlike the stereotype. Nonetheless, none fit the mold completely. Of all those she found , her apparent favorite (and definitely mine) was an 80-something Chinese-American woman who had worked as a social activist in the Detroit area ever since her graduation from college. The middle section of this film (where she looks at two Grace Lees involved with Christian evangelism) drags just a bit -- but overall this quirky documentary is quite engaging. Now available on DVD (for home video purposes -- as well as institutional use and exhibition).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Watched August 6- 12, 2007: Ninagawa, (Kiyoshi) Kurosawa and Shiota

Sakuran (Mika Ninagawa, 2006)

This film recounts the story of a high class prostitute (called an oiran) starting with her childhood (when she is sold to a brothel in the Yoshiwara district of Tokyo) through her rise to the top tier of her profession over the course of the next ten years or so. The time period is not specified, but the events here have to have taken place no later than the beginning of the 1700s (because by mid-century oiran had largely died out, having replaced by geisha). Our heroine (played as a young woman by Anna Tsuchiya) is reasonably engaging -- but the story (based on a manga by Moyoco Anno, wife of Evangelion director Hideko Anno) is more than a little problematic. First, there is a matter of authenticity, While not so spurious as the Hollywood confection Memoirs of a Geisha, it nonetheless presents a depiction that has only a tangential connection to historical reality. The highest level oiran apparently operated at a level of rarefied sophistication that would make the most polished geisha look somewhat coarse and unrefined in comparison -- and the film completely misfires on this (except as to fanciness of the star's clothing). Possibly even worse, the film glamorizes (and trivializes) prostitution -- suggesting that neither the writer nor director has much familiarity with the real profession or with the remarkable catalog of Japanese films dealing far more honestly and intelligently with such issue.

Looking at this film from a purely visual perspective, it is often gorgeous. Ninagawa may be a first-time director, but she is also a highly experienced still photographer (lots of fashion photography, among other things). Indeed, one could justifiably call much of the camera work here "fashion cinematography". The art direction is similarly gorgeous -- though its gaudiness makes ZHANG Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower look positively drab and dowdy in comparison. The direction is generally passable -- but there are some significant lapses (such as at least one important character who does not age in tandem with our heroine). The plotting is often more than a little implausible (even aside from historical authenticity). The acting is generally decent, but rarely outstanding. If only the essentials of this film were as good as its accidentals...

The Japanese DVD looks great -- and has good English subtitles on the film itself (but not the extras). More pictures (just because they are pretty):

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Sakebi / Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2006)

For some reason, I was sure that the Japanese release of Kurosawa's new film would have English subtitles -- but it didn't. while non-plussed initially, after I began my viewing of the film I began to wonder if the lack of subtitles didn't make following the film easier. I have long suspected that Kurosawa's films rely far more on some sort of "visual logic" than on anything resembling traditional "narrative logic" -- and Retribution may well support this theory.

Once again, in this film, Kurosawa assigns the central role to Koji Yakusho -- and once again Yakusho plays a police officer beset with problems. Here he is part of a team investigating a series of murders that have a number of common elements yet turn out to have totally unrelated perpetrators. Chief among the common elements -- the use of drowning to kill the victims and various apparent links back to Yakusho himself (that don't really fit with the rest of the crime scene evidence). There also seems to be lady ghost dressed in red, who is interested both in the crimes and in Yakusho himself.

Yakusho is not the most suave police investigator one has seen -- and he shows a disturbing tendency to use violent methods towards suspects (which unsettles his colleagues more than a little). Despite his uncouthness, he has (or had) a rather sophisticated and sweet-natured girl -- but rather elusive -- girl friend. One never is certain as to just where the scenes of Yakusho and lady friend fit into the time sequence associated with the murder investigations. some clearly appear to be flashbacks -- while others seem to be contemporaneous (but are curiously disconnected from the main narrative). The film eventually deals with (but doesn't ever directly explain) why the murders occur -- and why Yakusho seems to be at the center of events.

I found this one of Kurosawa's most impressive and enjoyable films to date. It is also pretty thoroughly enigmatic -- something that seems a virtue in the case of this director. This looks great visually (though often dark-ish) -- and Yakusho turns in another first-rate acting performance. The Japanese DVD looks very good and has lots of (unsubbed) extras -- including what would appear to be an alternate ending (that sort of supports my tentative reading of the film). As it turns out, the Hong Kong DVD of this is already out -- and is both subtitled and cheaper than the Japanese version. I guess I am stuck with hoping my copy at least might look better (but one can never tell these days with Hong Kong releases).

Dororo (Akihiko Shiota, 2007)

Another great looking new Japanese film based on a manga. The manga here, however, is a classic by the godfather of Japanese manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka's manga told of a ruthless warrior who traded in his soon-to-arrive first-born son for vastly improved warmaking powers, following a defeat in battle. He makes this deal with a pack of (48) demons, each of whom is to get a bit of the son. When the son is born, there is little left but a husk -- which the father wants to destroy (but which mother floats down the river in a rush basket, a la Moses). Luckily for the infant, he is found by a healer-magician-scientist who sets about creating a full set of replacement parts -- with some enhancements (such as blessed blades hidden inside his arms). When the child (now named Hyakkimaru or "hundred demons" -- and played by Tsumabuki Satoshi) reaches manhood (sort of), he sets off to reclaim his real missing parts. Along the way, he encounters a young orphaned thief (a girl masquerading as a boy, as protective coloration). This girl (played by Kou Shibasaki), named Dororo, sets off following Hyakkimaru. While she sometimes causes extra problems for him, she provides invaluable aid at other times. Their relationship comes under strain when she discovers that his real father was responsible for destroying her village (and her parents). Hyakkimaru eventually encounters his parents and younger brother -- an event that seems to displease his father mightily.

The film is marvelous looking -- and the special effects (good and bad) are lots of fun. One doesn't demand great acting from a cartoon -- but the leads and supporting performers are all pretty good here. The scenery (courtesy of New Zealand) is also pretty outstanding. I got the budget version of the unsubbed Japanese DVD, which supplied little in the way of extras. The visual storytelling here is so clear that subtitles are rarely needed (much) -- all one really needs in order to follow and enjoy the film is a little background information (which you now have). Not "great art", perhaps, but a very enjoyable film from a very fine director better known for more "serious "films.

A few more screen shots:

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Watched July 30 - August 5, 2007: -- Yaguchi, Lau, Kawase and Park

Himitsu no hanazono / My Secret Cache (Shinobu Yaguchi, 1997)

A young girl named Sakiko is fascinated with money (and counting money) -- and her obsession continues unabated throughout high school. On graduation, she decides that working as a bank clerk might be a perfect job -- but soon finds that counting other people's money is not a lot of fun. She wishes for more excitement and -- as if on demand -- her bank is robbed and she is carried off as a hostage (thrown in the trunk, along with a yellow suit case full of cash). To elude pursuit, the bank robbers go into the wilderness -- and crash the car. Only Sakiko and the suitcase survive -- as they are thrown out of the car (and into a sinkhole) before the car explodes. After a wild watery ride, using the suitcase as a flotation device -- the girl and her money are parted. She survives her ordeal (just barely), but now is obsessed with finding the suitcase full of yen notes.

Sakiko now finally has a purpose in life -- and she is going to do whatever it takes to track down the money (which the bank and police assume to have been burned up). This entails registering in a geological program (headed by Taketoshi Naito, with an assist from perennial grad student Go Riju) at a dumpy provincial college and taking classes in swimming, diving and mountain climbing. As it turns out, in her stinginess throughout her childhood and youth, Sakiko has amassed sufficient funds to (almost) pay for her exploits. Her family is bewildered by her new (unexplained) hyperactivity. Will she find the suitcase of her dreams -- and if she does, then what ...

Naomi Nishida (in her first starring role) is a hoot as Sakiko (from high school age on) -- and the rest of the cast is quite engaging. The script is amusing, albeit wildly improbable -- and the direction and cinematography are effective (if not unduly artful). No pretensions to "cinema" here, just a fun movie. The Korean DVD of this film is subtitled -- and technically passable.

Oi gwan yue mung / Dance of a Dream (Andrew LAU Wai-kung, 2001)

While Andrew Lau seems to have hit the jackpot with his Infernal Affairs trilogy, his other film work seems to be mostly in the "only so-so" range. In both this older film and in his recent Confessions of Pain, he has the benefit of a fine cast -- yet still comes up with a product that is erratic dramatically -- and not especially inspired visually. For all the ordinariness of writing and direction, the excellent cast occasionally makes the film work.

Sandra Ng plays a waitress who works in a hotel run by rich young woman (Anita Mui). Both are intrigued by a dance teacher (Andy Lau) who performs at an event at Mui's hotel. Both soon sign up for lessons at Lau's shabby dance studio (Ng for budget lessons, MUi for deluxe private instruction). Of course, Mui's demands (and the extra cash supplied by her brother, Edison Chen), preempt some of the attention Ng and the other students (including Cherrie Ying, as a young hooker with a passion for dancing) were hoping to get. Will Anita Mui learn to tango in time for her big holiday party, will Lau be able to go to the world ballroom dancing competiton (viz. Shall We Dance), who will snare Lau's heart (Ng or Mui).

The story is, as a whole, more than a little confused and confusing, but many individual scenes are engaging (and/or quite funny). The high point of the whole show is a lengthy production number set to the tune of "Never on a Sunday". The Korean DVD of this is subtitled -- and looks pretty good generally.

More pictures:

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Nunbyshin nare / Meet Mr. Daddy (PARK Kwang-su, 2007)

Park was the leader of the New Korean Cinema and made a number of important (and often very politically charged films) in the late 80s and 90s. For the past few years, however, he has been involved in administrative side of the film industry. Meet Mr. Daddy marks Park's return to feature film making after an absence of over five years. The film he made after this absence, however, was very unlike his prior work. This films turns out to have been a highly melodramatic family drama -- with no obvious political implications.

The protagonist (Park Shin-yang) here is a vain, blustering petty criminal -- who manages to get into trouble almost as soon as he gets out of prison on parole. He unexpectedly gets a chance to get back out of jail again -- but only if her agrees to take care of a seven year old girl he supposedly fathered and who has spent most of her life in an orphanage. The girl (Seo Shin-ae) has long idolized her father, based on a few bits of memorabilia that came along with her to the orphanage. As paternal devotion (and getting back out of jail) isn't enough of an inducement, the girls' social worker (Ye Ji-won) agrees to provide him with a stipend for caring for the girl. Even with this inducement, he proves to be an indifferent parent most of the time. And he is re-recruited by his gang colleagues into more nefarious schemes. He begins to come to his senses, but not until he runs into serious problems with his gang bosses -- and also discovers his child has severe medical problems (despite her cheery and optimistic disposition). The whole story takes place against the backdrop of the 2002 World Cup competition.

The premise for this film might be borderline credible, but the script makes sure that the story line repeatedly goes over the top -- in terms of both melodrama and improbability. Despite this, excellent performances (and very fine cinematography) almost persuade one to take the story seriously -- until the next big jar in plot. One hopes that Park's next project will involve a more plausible script. In any event, the subbed Kotrean DVD looks quite good.

More screen shots:

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Mogari no mori / The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

Kawase's latest feature film picked up the Grand Prix (essentially second prize) at the Cannes film festival earlier this year. Although the film has a number of real merits, my initial sense (based on an unsubbed viewing) is that it is not as satisfying as the two earlier films I've seen by her (Suzaku and Shara). The film's primary focus is on an elderly man (clearly suffering some degree of dementia) in a nursing home out in the countryside and a young woman who is one of his caregivers. Although generally genial, the man is mischievous -- and also has some secrets he refuses to share. When a car mishap during a birthday treat car ride for the old man allows him to escape into a nearby forest, the young woman must follow him. In the forest, she learns of something of his secret sadness (and happiness) -- and he learns some of her secrets as well.

The pacing here is generally slow, and this works well -- insofar as the story remains within the realm of probability. But the film seems to strain a bit too hard, once it finally enters the forest. Symbolism and naturalism seem a bit at odds in the final portion of the film. Maybe I will warm to this more on re-watching. But I had no similar problem with her prior films on my first meeting with them.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Watched July 23 - 29, 2007: -- Ozu and Kurosawa

Akibiyori / Late Autumn (Yasujiro Ozu, 1960)

In this film, Ozu re-visits the theme of
Late Spring, telling the story of a single parent and an only daughter. Here, however, Setsuko Hara plays the parent rather than the child (in one of the few roles where she played a character somewhat older than her real age). Her daughter (played by Yoko Tsukasa) is not strongly averse to marriage in principle -- but doesn't feel any urgency either. Nonetheless, as a lark (more or less), three of her late father's old buddies (Shin Saburi, Nobuo Nakamura and Ryuji KIta) decide to get her married off. When it turns out that she is reluctant to consider marriage due to concern over leaving her mother on her own, they also begin plotting to get her mother to re-marry. Ironically, they needn't have bothered, as Tsukasa meets someone (Keiji Sada) who catches her fancy through the good offices of one of her colleagues at work (who turns out to be the same person as Shin Saburi's proposed prospect). Their meddling manages to cause a breach between mother and daughter, prompting Tsukasa's friend (Mariko Okada) to put the three in their place. Ultimately, as the three codgers celebrate their "victory" after the wedding, Hara is left to deal with her unaccustomed loneliness.

While this film has some (slightly) darker moments, until the very final scene, this appears to one of Ozu's lightest post-war domestic comedies. The three meddling geezers have a tendency to slip into adolescent humor -- and Okada's bearding of them in their own den (Saburi's office lounge) is one of Ozu's funniest scenes ever. What complicates the film is the fact that Hara's character, by and large, never finds much to laugh about in all the goings on. To be sure, she maintains her composure and her general good humor, but for all the humor at the center of the film, Hara (often on the periphery) remains a bit uneasy. Hara's performance here hints at the sort of actress she might have become if Ozu had not died just a couple of years later (and she not abruptly retired soon after Ozu's death). The rest of the cast is uniformly wonderful (as usual in Ozu).

The new Eclipse DVD of this film is passable, but doesn't look as good as the unsubbed Shochiku DVD. It is well-subtitled, but -- like all other Eclipse releases -- has nothing in the way of extras.

Yojimbo
(Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

This film left me feeling more than a little ambivalent. It is unquestionably a gorgeous looking film, thanks to the cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saitô (who was in charge of the telephoto work). And the near perpetual blowing wind and dust was also quite impressive. And there was a wonderful cast. But the thoroughgoing nihilistic cynicism that provided the thematic underpinning of the film was off-putting. Perhaps because of this sense of artistic estrangement, it dawned on me how ultimately elitist Kurosawa's vision typically is.

In this film, the protagonist (Sanjuro -- as embodied by Toshiro Mifune) doesn't really care about anyone. He pits the two ruling factions against each other, egging them on to destroy each other -- simply because he thinks the results will be "interesting". He does one apparent good deed, but it seems that this act is mainly there to provide an essential cog in the rather mechanistic plot. He has no particular interest in "rescuing" the townsfolk from their thuggish overlords -- and, in fact, he leaves the town in a shambles at the end -- with its economic base almost totally wrecked. The central image of the film is Mifune, sitting in a tower, watching the mayhem and chuckling over the entertainment it provides him.

On reflecting back on other Kurosawa films I have seen, it dawned on me that one could almost put Kurosawa up in that tower in place of his star. To be sure, Kurosawa normally exhibits a sort of good-natured "noblesse oblige" towards his poor and lower working class characters. But he rarely shows much in the way of identification with (or genuine interest in) their plight. While such characters may sometimes be "interesting"in an abstract fashion, they are routinely looked at as if from above (a point reflected literally in the cinematography of some of the films -- most notably in Lower Depths). In other films, peasant characters are viewed pretty explicitly as almost an alien species (see, for example, Seven Samurai). The characters he takes most interest in tend to belong to more valued social circles (even if they are poor and scruffy members of those circles).

In their early survey of Japanese cinema, Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie were quite enthusiastic about Kurosawa's work -- and almost uniformly dismissive of or (patronizing towards) any directors who seemed to take the situation of lower class characters too seriously (for example Tomu Uchida and Tadashi Imai). In more recent years, Richie hasn't really shifted from this sort of approach; in his most recent survey of Japanese cinema, he totally ignored the work of Yoji Yamada, one of Japan's most successful directors for more than three decades. Like Uchida and Imai, Yamada routinely treats the concerns of those near the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid as important -- and views the lowliest of his characters as worthy of respect. Clearly the preferences of Anderson and Richie reflected those of their American audience. While Uchida and Imai got some attention in both the United States and Europe back in the 50s and early 60s, their "leftist" films totally disappeared from the English-speaking world ages ago. Similarly, even the best films of Yoji Yamada, for all their popularity throughout Asia, have never really got much traction in the United States.

Returning to Yojimbo, I would note that the new Criterion DVD of the film looks wonderful. And the primary extra of the set, the installment of It's Wonderful to Create devoted to Yojimbo, is extremely informative and enjoyable.

Tsubaki Sanjûrô / Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

If ordinary townsfolk were largely invisible in Yojimbo, they disappear almost entirely in Sanjuro. The entire cast seems to be made up of members of the samurai class. Once again, Sanjuro (Mifune) has walked into a hornet's nest of sorts. A bunch of idealistic young samurai have discovered corruption in their clan, but their attempts to deal with it have proved to be potentially disastrous. Misled by slickness, they have actually tipped off the bad guys (Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai et al), putting the good guys (Yûnosuke Itô, Takako Irie, Reiko Dan and themselves) in danger. Out of a sense of frustration, perhaps, Sanjuro decides to try to help the inept do-gooders out of the mess they created.

This film has a far more good-natured and easy-going tone than Yojimbo -- and one can actually like some of the characters here. Takako Irie, as the elderly wife of the endangered official, is especially amiable -- with her complacency in the face of disaster and her ability to see through Sanjuro. Keiju Kobayashi (a perennial nice guy in Naruse's films) appears as a captured "enemy" who blithely switches sides when he discovers the truth of what has been going on. In the It's Wonderful to Create installment for this film, Kobayashi tells us that Kurosawa allowed him to improvise large parts of his role (and associated dialog).

The cinematography here is good enough, but generally lacks the superabundant stylishness provided by Miyagawa in Yojimbo. The DVD looks good too -- but not as strikingly so as its companion film. Not as "important" a film as Yojimbo, perhaps, but one a lot more entertaining to watch. All the same, neither of these films equals Sadao Yamanaka's three surviving films from the 1930s or Uchida's 1955 Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji.