Sunday, September 30, 2007

Watched September 10 - 16, 2007: Nomura, Feng and Gu

Suna no utsuwa / Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Seicho Matsumoto, 1961)
Suna no utsuwa / The Castle of Sand (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1974)

The title of both book (1961) and movie (1974) is literally translated as "bowl made of sand", the notion being something created with great care that is extremely transient in nature. Matsumoto , the author of the book on which many of Nomura's films were based (including this one) is generally considered one of the greatest Japanese writers of mysteries and crime fiction. Despite his domestic fame, very little of his work (other than Suna no utsuwa is available in English. Both book and film deal with the same basic plot framework. A man is killed at the Kamata rail yard -- and police are not only unable to find the killer but even to identify the victim. Inspector Imanishi and a junior colleague Yoshimura make up two members of the police team assigned to this murder investigation -- and engage in a number of what seem to be wild goose chases (including a trip to Northern Honshu). When the victim's identity is discovered (a retired policeman from southern Honshu, who had run a small business for many years in), the mystery only deepens, as the man seemed to have led a virtually saintly existence, routinely doing good works despite his very limited resources. An independent thread of the story involves a group of bohemian artistic types. Yet another thread involves a leper and his son who the victim had helped out back in the late 30s, prior to his retirement from the police. Eventually both book and film connect these threads together.

This is the fifth Nomura film I've seen and, despite its reputation, the least satisfactory. While Kage no kuruma had some significant stylistic problems, it also had a number of strengths (especially on the narrative level). Castle of Sand is even more problematic. Perhaps the most obvious problem, two key roles are poorly handled. Tetsuo Tamba hams it up as Imanishi, performing in a style at odds with the largely naturalistic performances of the rest of the cast. Less serious (but not trivial), the child actor who plays the leper's son was not very good here. Another serious problem, the structure of the film just didn't seem to make a lot of sense. The last third or so of the film is devoted to a picturesque (dialog-less) depiction of the wanderings of the leper and his son, as a noted pianist-composer plays and conducts his latest composition. Into this long sequence, Nomura scatters short bits of Imanishi presenting results of his investigations to the full investigative team. This extended section looks and sounds pretty, but seemed just a bit vacuous.

As it turns out, Matsumoto's novel spent comparatively little time on detailing the wanderings of the leper and his son. While the pair did play a significant role in the working out of the mystery, this aspect was handled mostly as a matter of background information. And what we are told of the wanderings of the two is at odds with the movie's treatment. In the book, the leper supposedly wandered from shrine to shrine, seeking miraculous healing; the film focuses on the two as mistreated outcasts, usually unable to even get charitable handouts. The book's focus is squarely on the process of investigation itself and the solving of the puzzles presented. Most of the narrative is focused on Imanishi, and no effort whatsoever is expended on trying to discern the "psychology" of the criminal. Insofar as the book has an important secondary focus, it deals with the group of fashionable (but a bit disreputable) artists. The film spends much less time of this part of the story -- and focuses solely on the musician, his fiancee and his girl friend. Somewhat incongruously, the avant-garde musician of the book (interested in electronics and "musique concrete") has become someone who writes rather conventional, neo-romantic concert music. Perhaps the most serious discrepancy between the book and the film -- the nature of Imanishi himself. Matsumoto's police detective is a far more interesting (yet far more restrained) individual than the blusterer presented by Tambo (and Nomura).

In watching the film, I found myself constantly trying to guess what Matsumoto's underlying story must have been. So many details rang false, that I was convinced that the film had to deviate seriously from the novel -- a feeling I never experienced while watching my four previous Nomura films (all based on Matsumoto's work). As it turns out, my hypothetical reconstruction of the story was largely confirmed when I got a copy of the novel from the Boston Public Library. Perhaps the structure of the novel was too similar to Harikomi, perhaps the books heavy focus on puzzle solving (sometimes in delightfully nerdy detail -- especially on the issue of obscure regional dialects) was found too "undramatic" by Nomura and his screen writer (Shinobu Hashimoto). Another possible source of some of the film's problems -- when written in 1961, the book was tied to the era of the crime (and not too far removed from the pre-history of the crime). By the time the film was made, the early 60s seemed almost as remote (and subject to coating with a sort of nostalgic veneer) as the late 30s.

In terms of sheer visual pleasure, the Japanese DVD has to be seen as vastly superior to the subbed but mis-formatted (and rather low quality) Panorama DVD from Hong Kong. And, whatever serious flaws of both narrative structure and performance the film might have, it is full of lovely images. Despite my misgivings as to the film, I'd guess that a screening of a good-quality, properly formatted print might be worth attending. As to Matsumoto's book, I have almost no reservations -- anyone who is a fan of police procedurals with lots of local (and period) color is likely to enjoy the English translation, Inspector Imanishi Investigates.

Tian xia wu zei / A World Without Thieves (FENG Xiaogang, 2004)

Feng has been one of mainland China's most successful directors -- in the domestic movie marketplace -- for quite some time. Although his recent, beautiful (but rather silly) historical film, The Banquet, was a disappointment, his previous film, World Without Thieves reminds one of just how good a "popular" film maker Feng is. This film is, in some ways, calls to mind the work of HK film maker Johnnie To --particularly Yesterday Once More, which involved the same male lead (Andy Lau) and the same underlying situation (a pair of romantically-involved crooks, whose relationship is foundering). To's film, however, was released only two months before Feng's, so there would not seem to be any sort of copycat issue here.

While To's criminal couple (Lau and Sammi Cheng) were top-flight jewel thieves, Feng's pair (Lau and Rene Liu) are pickpockets and confidence tricksters. For reasons not entirely clear, the two drive to Western China (in a car they extorted from a foolish businessman). During the course of the ride, after Lau uses a stop at a Buddhist shine to steal a multitude of cellphones while Liu fervently prays, the two split up. Stranded (due to her own demand), Liu is "rescued" by a sweet-natured but very simple young shrine repairman (nicknamed Dumbo, played by WANG Boaqing) and his colleagues. Wang has decided to head home (foolishly taking his accumulated wages in cash -- against the advice of his more experienced co-workers). As fate would have it, Lau and Liu and Wang all wind up on the same train -- along with a criminal gang headed by GE You (a FENG regular) -- and some police detectives on vacation.

Wang, having rarely come across predatory humans, finds it impossible to believe that people are so dishonest and dangerous as his friends claimed. Thus, he (and his wad of cash) are at great risk during his train journey. For a (sufficient) reason of her own, Liu decides to guard him and, to placate Liu, Lau sort of cooperates. Of course, by protecting Wang, Liu and Lau incur the enmity of Ge's gang (icluding the lovely but vicious LI Bingbing). Eventually, Lau and Ge negotiate a temporary truce -- but as the train approaches its destination things get more and more complicated.

Like To's 2003 Running on Karma and Ann Hui's Goddess of Mercy of the same year, this film has a distinctly religious tinge. Buddhist concepts are close to the core of all these films. The combination of religion, action-adventure and romantic comedy seems a bit unwieldy (given Western expectations) but works quite well overall here. The premise of the story is a bit farfetched, but the performances and the cinematography (by ZHANG Li) successfully carry this along.

Kong que / Peacock (GU Changwei, 2005)

Gu is one of China's finest cinematographers, having done excellent work with ZHANG Yimou, CHEN Kaige and JIANG Wen. Peacock is the first film he has directed -- and (not surprisingly) one of its strongest features is its cinematography (by YANG Shu). In terms of "narrative", the film is rather hard to assess. The film presents its story from the perspectives on each of three characters: the late teen-aged daughter (ZHANG Jingchu) of a working class family in a provincial town, her massively obese, mentally challenged, spoiled older brother (FENG Li) and her repressed and rather resentful younger brother (LU Yulai). Originally, the film was 240 minutes long -- and one assumes that around 80 minutes were allotted to each of the three parts. As released, however, the film was massively cut down -- to a mere 14o minutes. Around 60 minutes are allotted to the daughter's story, around 50 to the older brother's and only about 30 to the younger brother's. While the first two sections of the film seem, perhaps, a bit elliptical -- the last comes across as rather fragmentary and chaotic.

None of the children in the "ordinary" family in provinvial China of the late 1970s and early 1980s is a model citizen. The daughter is an indifferent worker -- but she has dreams. She falls in love with an army paratrooper she encounters by chance -- and wants to join the reserve parachuting squad, but discovers her idol isn't particularly interested in her. She gets involved with a local "bad boy" and into yet more trouble because of her fondness for a middle-aged accordion teacher. Ultimately, fed up with her family, she escapes rather cold-bloodedly into a marriage of convenience with an older man (who is neither charming nor handsome). The older brother is even more disastrous in work settings than his sister -- and he is coddled in his laziness and greediness by his mother. After his attempt at courting a pretty local girl falls flat, his mother arranges a marriage with a country girl with a bad leg (thus making her unsuitable as a farm wife). The two eventually open a food stall -- and seem to do reasonably well. The younger brother is driven to distraction by his brother. His father seems to sympathize with his plight, but explodes with anger on finding a "dirty"drawing in the son's notebook. Kicked out of the house, the son disappears for years -- only to return with a somewhat dodgy spouse and a young baby.

The first segment of the film can almost stand as a film in its own right (and, with 20 minutes added back in, would probably do so). Zhang is a wonderful actress -- and captures her character's blend of surliness, dreaminess and desperation almost perfectly. It is a bit hard to judge Feng's performance as the older brother -- as his character is so extreme in both appearance and behavior. Moreover, his segment was not as intriguing as that of his sister, but once the rural would-be bride arrived, things improved. It is even harder to judge Lu's younger brother as the segment in which he is featured is so abbreviated -- and we get relatively little idea of what his character is like. Pending availability of a more complete version, I'd judge the current version of Peacock well worth seeing on account of Zhang's performance and the cinematography.

More screen shots:

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Watched September 3 - 9, 2007: Nomura and Senbon

Harikomi / The Stakeout (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)

A couple of years ago, I saw (and liked quite a lot) the two Nomura films released on DVD by HVE -- Zero no shoten (Zero Focus, 1961) and Kichiku (The Demon, 1978). I kept hoping for subbed DVDs of more of his films, but none ever appeared. Consequently, when Shochiku re-issued a number of his films at bargain prices (for Japan), I decided to try out a few more -- despite the lack of subtitles. The purchase of this film turns out to have been a wise move. Like Zero Focus, this features superb black and white Cinemascope-style cinematography and a first rate cast of veteran stars. Like both these other films, Harikomi is based on a detective story by Seicho Matumoto.

As with Kurosawa's Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949), Harikomi involves a veteran policeman (Seiji Miyaguchi) and a junior associate (Minoru Ohki) trying to capture a malefactor during an oppressively hot summer. Here, however, the focus is not so much on searching -- but on waiting and watching. Their fugitive has fled Tokyo, leaving no real trail. For lack of any better options, the two officers travel to the town in Kyushu in which the criminal's former girl friend (Hideko Takmine) lives. Once in Kyushu, they rent a room in an inn across the street from Takamine's home. While watching Takamine's day to day life, they grow increasing sympathetic of her plight -- she is married to a rather boorish banker and has a bunch of demanding children. She not only has to do all the housework unaided, but also has to take on extra chores to help pay household expenses (her husband being quite stingy). The apparent idleness of the two detectives leads to lots of speculation (and a bit of merriment) among the inn's staff (led by proprietress Kumeko Urabe).

The detectives are not always idle, however -- sometimes they chase after Takamine on false alarms, such as shopping trips or a visit to a funeral in a rural village. Eventually, because this lead has proved so unpromising, the senior detective returns to Tokyo. One day, Takamine gets a letter that changes her demeanor -- and eventually she sets off on a journey alone (except for Ohki tailing her). She finally does rendezvous with her former lover, still unaware of his legal problems. As they go together to a resort inn, Ohki gathers local reinforcements...

This film focuses almost entirely on the police detectives. Takamine and her former lover are seen only as they are seen by their observers. This is no flaw in this case, but the concern is with the impact of the pursuit on the pursuers -- and not on the unwary prey. It is unfortunate that no subbed version is available, as Harikomi is at least as fine a film as the two Nomura ones that are available on DVD in the United States. Highly recommended.

More screen shots:

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Kage no kuruma / The Shadow Within (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1970)

This fourth Nomura film proved to be not quite so satisfactory as the three I had seen previously. The visual clarity found in the other films was marred here by instances of cinematic gimmickry -- such as split screen images and flashbacks involving deconstructed (decomposed?) color. The flashbacks looked rather gruesome when watched on our television, but not quite so bad when viewed on a computer monitor. The script also had some problems.

The story concept here (once again based on a story by Seicho Matsumoto) is relatively intriguing. The protagonist (Go Kato) is a mild-mannered travel agent married to a rather ditzy wife (Mayumi Ogawa) who is always involved with hobbies and socializing with friends. One day, while riding the bus home from work, he runs across his childhood sweetheart (Shima Iwashita). A few days later, he visits her home -- and meets her 6 year old son. At first all goes "well". Kato's romance with Iwashita progresses, he bonds with her son -- and his wife is too preoccupied to think much about the fact that he is working later than ever before. But when the three go on a car trip to a wilderness park, the boy gets upset. After the adults slip off to make love while the boy is asleep in the car, he wakes up and is unable to find anyone, despiting searching and calling. After this point, accidents happen when Kato visits -- and he thinks the boy is trying to injure or kill him.

Intercut with the present-days scenes, Nomura presents Kato's memories of his own childhood, including ones involving his step-father. It seems Kato was very jealous of his widowed mother, and resented his new step-parent (despite reasonably decent treatment). As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Kato sees parallels between his childhood self and the young son of his lover. Eventually, this leads to real problems for all...

The primary problem in this film is an almost total psychological disconnect between the protagonist's childhood persona and his contemporary one. The focus in this film is on his personality -- yet there is no hint as to how the surly, violent child turned into the nebbishy travel agent we saw at the film's start. Perhaps having subtitles would have helped a bit, but the visual foundations of the film struck me as a bit muddled. An interesting film, and worth seeing -- but not on the level of Nomura's best work.

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Akai Kujira to Shiroi Hebi / Red Whale, White Snake (Yoshiko Senbon, 2006)

Kyoko Kagawa made her first film around 57 years ago, and -- judging from JMDB (which is not quite up to date) -- her appearance in this film would appear to be about her 120th role. Here, playing an elderly woman in the early stage of senile dementia, she shows that she remains one of the world's finest actresses. Here she works with Yoshiko Senbon, a retired television director (who began working in Japan's television industry in 1953) making her first feature film. All in all, this all-woman (for all practical purposes) film is a quite satisfactory one.

At the outset, Yasue (Kagawa) is shown riding in a train with Akemi, one of her grand-daughters, a 20-something Tokyo-ite (Mao Miyaji). Because of her increasing bouts of disorientation and memory loss, Yasue's family has decided she should finally move in with one of her children. As the two are on their way, the train stops at a station in the town in which Yasue spent part of her teen years in, as a refugee from the ongoing bombing of Tokyo. Hearing the name announced triggers a desire to see this place again. So the pair set out via taxi to find the old farm house, guided only by Yasue's decades old memories -- which prove to still be dependable. As it turns out, the house Yasue seeks is still there, but not for long. It is currently occupied by Mitsuko (Miyoko Asada) and her daughter (a fifth grader, played by 11 year-old Mari Banno in her first film role). Mitsuko, whose husband had deserted the family three years earlier, has decided to have the old farm complex torn down soon in order to build a modern house (her daughter is unhappy about this plan, as the house is filled with memories of happier days with her father). Yasue asks to be allowed to stay the night, to the mortification of her grand-daughter and Mitsuko cheerily invites the two to make themselves at home for as long as they wish.

As it turns out, Kagawa has a stronger reason to visit the old house than simple nostalgia. She has begun to recall a vow she made to the young man she fell in love with while living there. He too was an evacuee, but he was alone in the world, having lost his entire family due to bombing. When he was drafted, he asked Kagawa to always remember him in the event of his death, as she would be the only one who could preserve his memory. Visiting the house also revives her memory of a magical white snake (capable of bringing fortune to those who see it) who lived near the house. While others are skeptical, young Rika is fascinated.

The four women are joined soon after by a fifth -- Midori (Kirin Kiki), a previous owner of the house. Midori proves to be quite interested in the private lives of the other women, but very reticent about her own (she seems to be involved with some chicanery involving the marketing of diet supplements). During their stay, Yasue remembers that she was supposed to find a box hidden away by her young friend before his departure -- and Rika helps Yasue look for the fabled white snake. Meanwhile, Akemi is having troubles of her own -- she turns out to be pregnant and her boy friend in Tokyo isn't the least bit interested in discussing the issue (to the extent of refusing to accept her calls). The remainder of the film (all the way through a long shot embedded in the midst of the credits) involves the working out of the five women's dilemmas.

A tangent. This is yet another modern Asian film that presents, in passing, a school girl's onset of menstrutation. The event is not treated casually, but is simply shown as an ordinary bit of life to be dealt with. So far as I can tell, this topic is virtually taboo in North American cinema, except in the context of horror films (viz. Carrie and Ginger Snaps). Make of this what you will.

The Japanese DVD of this film looks good, but is (as is too often the case) unsubtitled. I actually watched this twice -- and found things much easier to follow the second time through. I suspect this film might be too culturally and historically specific to ever make it into Western theaters. It's our loss. While hardly an overwhelming film, it si a lovely one with fine performances that tells us something about Japanese life and history that we are unlikely to encounter elsewhere.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Watched August 27 - September 2, 2007: Bunuel and Hwang

Gran Casino (Luis Buñuel, 1947)

Gran Casino was Bunuel's first Mexican film -- a musical about chicanery in the oil fields of Tampico. Two ne'er-do-well drifters go to work for an independent oil well owner, whose claim is coveted by a local crime boss. When the owner "disappears" at a shady night club, the drifters wind up in charge. When the owner's younger sister (a singer) comes to visit, she suspects foul play -- and takes a job at the night club incognito. Our hero, of course, loses his heart to her -- and so does the crooked boss. What will happen to the hero? the heroine? the wells?

The script for this film is -- shall we say -- a bit light-weight. The acting is mostly just passable. But I actually enjoyed the (mostly gratuitous) musical numbers. I was surprised to find a lot more little touches suggestive of the once and future Bunuel than I expected. There were some interesting links to Huston's soon-to-follow Treasure of the Sierra Madre -- including the appearance of Alfonso Bedoya as leader of the crooked boss's gang of enforcers. As the screen shots here show, the new Lionsgate DVD of this film looks quite fine.

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The Young One / La Joven (Luis Buñuel, 1960)

Young One is a lot more substantial piece of work than its companion in the Lionsgate set-- arguably one of Bunuel's best films. One of two English language films made by Bunuel (the other being his Robinson Crusoe), this one deals with both racism and the sexual exploitation of a minor, handling the issues in a fashion that is not particularly conventional. The cinematography (by Gabriel Figueroa) is absolutely gorgeous. While I generally find Zachary Scott a bit wooden (and this is not an exception), the performances of Kay Meersman (as the girl) and Bernie Hamilton (the fugitive jazz clarinetist) are superb -- and Bunuel regular Claude Brook portrays (well) yet another (mostly) admirable religious figure. If one really wanted desperately to complain about this film, one could note that the Mexican island (near Acapulco?) on which this was filmed doesn't look remotely like a Carolina barrier island. But I'd just as soon not complain (on this score -- or any other).

This is a film where I find any attempt at verbal description largely inadequate, the screen shots say far more about the film than I ever could. The Lionsgate DVD of this looks simply superb -- so it is unfortunate that the discs in this set are mis-marked (in order to see this film, one needs to watch the disc labeled Gran Casino).

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Chulsoo & Younghee
(HWANG Gyu-deok, 2005)

A rather sweet good-natured tale of life and love among middle schoolers. Younghee is a transfer student, who has come to live with her grandmother (the proprietor of a small florist shop) following the death of her parents (who were musicians). Chulsoo is one of the class clowns in the classroom to which Younghee is assigned. Chulsoo tries to gain the approval of Younghee (often counter-productively), eventually resorting to pleading for math tutoring from her (which he badly needs). Meanwhile, Younghee develops a crush on the kindly (and handsome) proprietor (played by star JEONG Jin-yeong) of a CD store across the street from her grandmother's shop. Learning of Younghee's love of music (and lack of a CD player), Chulsoo gets a job as a paperboy to buy her one for Christmas. Not high art, but sweet -- it must have come out at a bad time in Korea (where it played in only two theaters and sold less than 3,000 tickets).